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Obama’s “This American Moment” Climate Change Speech: Real Science and Hope Trump a Moon Made of Cheese

President used UC Irvine’s excellence in global change research as launching pad for major climate change speech. Tells graduates “we need you” to help America lead the fight against global warming and “push back against the misinformation.” One of the true high points in the short history of the University of California, Irvine, and in...

President used UC Irvine’s excellence in global change research as launching pad for major climate change speech. Tells graduates “we need you” to help America lead the fight against global warming and “push back against the misinformation.”

One of the true high points in the short history of the University of California, Irvine, and in my own time at UCI, came on Saturday, June 14, 2014, at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. And it wasn’t a baseball game.

President Barack Obama, after receiving over 10,000 invitations from UCI students, delivered its 49th Commencement address, before a crowd of 36,000 graduating students, their family and friends, and university faculty.

It was not however, that we were lucky enough to be selected, nor the fact that the last sitting President to preside over UCI Commencement was Lyndon Johnson (our first, back in 1965), nor that UCI is about to celebrate it’s 50th year, that made this a surreal event, at least for me.

It is because the President chose this moment in time — later he would call it ‘this American moment’ — to deliver a major climate change speech, his now infamous slam to climate deniers, and a call to arms to the new graduates to help combat climate change.

“It’s no accident that when President Kennedy needed to convince the nation that sending Americans into space was a worthy goal, he went to a university.” -President Obama at UC Irvine Commencement, June 14, 2014

Some may wonder, ‘why here?’ or ‘why now?’ for such a dramatic and important speech.  We know that climate change and policy remain high on the President’s agenda, but why not pick a higher-profile venue, and a time that did not conflict with the World Cup?

The answer, it turns out, is well-known to the UCI community and to water and climate researchers like myself.  It is because of the rich history in global change research at UC Irvine.  It is home to the renowned Earth System Science department, which the President himself noted was ‘the America.’  With its focus on global change research, teaching, leadership and communication, UCI Earth System Science is now ranked among the top geoscience departments in the country.

Moreover, UC Irvine was the academic home of Nobel Laureate Sherry Rowland, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for conducting the research that showed that chlorofluorocarbons destroyed stratospheric ozone, work that ultimately led to the discovery of the ozone hole.  Prof. Don Blake, a former Ph.D. student of Prof. Rowland’s, carries on the proud tradition of the Rowland-Blake lab today.

If you’re going to talk about saving the planet, UCI is a great place to do it.

President Obama delivering UC Irvine's 49th Commencement Address at Angel Stadium, June 14, 2014. Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine Communications
President Obama delivering UC Irvine’s 49th Commencement Address at Angel Stadium, June 14, 2014. Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine Communications

I have to admit that the President’s choice of topics took us all by surprise.  Just like that, Mr. Obama equated understanding and combating climate change to the challenge of landing a man on the moon. “Progress on climate change is a big thing” he said.  Like America’s space program, “it requires a spirit of adventure. A willingness to take risks. It requires optimism.”

The President then launched into a succession of UCI shout-outs that made my head spin and had me Tweeting as quickly as my ineptitude would allow. One reason for this post is to give a little context to these shout-outs.   Ultimately, it is the work of their subjects that underlies the President’s comments, and provides the scientific basis for our past, present and future understanding of climate change.

Mr. Obama was not simply referring to popular climate change headlines. He was specifically referring to real people who do very difficult work and who have devoted themselves to charting the course of Earth’s changing future.  They are mentors to the graduating students and to the generation of young people that might actually save us.  They deserve our profound respect for their unselfish dedication.  As the President asked, “Can you imagine a more worthy goal, a more worthy legacy than protecting the world  we leave to our children?”  That’s how these folks have chosen to spend their careers.

After giving nods to Prof. Rowland and ESS, the President next mentioned the work of UCI glaciologists and their recent paper on how the ice sheets ‘are past the point of no return.’  This was a direct reference to Prof. Eric Rignot’s research group, whose brilliant efforts to map and quantify the demise of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been raising important concerns that they are disintegrating more quickly than we, or our computer models, had ever anticipated.

Next he mentioned changing fire seasons, water tables, efforts to map the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities and to bring zero-emission vehicles to market.

The fire frequency reference was to the groundbreaking research of Prof. Jim Randerson’s group, which uses satellites and builds predictive models to better monitor and forecast fire season severity.  Since fire frequency and water availability are intimately linked, our team has had the very good fortune to collaborate with Jim’s on GRACE-hydrology research and how it may help improve drought and fire season severity predictions.

The water table work was a nod to our team and our research on groundwater depletion around the world.  You have read about it at length here in Water Currents.  The implications for water availability, food security and transboundary conflict are profound.  Stay tuned to Water Currents for updates on our latest research.

The President’s mention of efforts to map coastal flooding and the increasing risk brought on by climate change, was a reference to Civil Engineering Prof. Brett Sanders’ and Social Ecology Prof. Richard Matthew‘s new FloodRISE project. FloodRISE is at the forefront of climate adaptation research.  As climate scientists, we now recognize that not only do we need to exemplify excellence in research, but, we need to work with social scientists to learn how to communicate evolving threats to those living in regions that are most at risk.

For me personally, the realization that UCI climate researchers had just received a series of the most epic shoutouts possible, was dizzying.  But it was where the speech went from there that really cemented this one in my memory.

Without a doubt, the climate denier, science ignoring, 97/3, moon made of cheese lines were simply amazing. However, as a teacher and one that advocates and actively recruits America’s youth for environmental careers, I was most inspired by this closing moments of the President’s address.

As the generation getting shortchanged by inaction on this issue, I want all of you to understand that you cannot accept that this is the way it has to be..If you believe like I do that something has to be done about on this, then you’re going to have to speak out…Remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that doing something about climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.” President Obama at UC Irvine Commencement, June 14, 2014

“We need you…We need you,” the President implored. His call to arms was as clear and crisp as the beautiful June afternoon in Angel Stadium.  Beyond the need to force the hands of those in charge to confront climate change, Mr. Obama repeated his message that a green economy is a strong economy that will provide a vast range of new job opportunities, from the construction worker rebuilding our aging infrastructure to withstand more frequent flooding, to the teachers telling the truth about climate change in the classroom, to the entrepreneurs willing to take huge, personal financial risks on new climate-friendly technologies.

These jobs are already beginning to emerge. In “this American moment” our country needs a steady stream of graduates — “the dreamers, the fighters, the idealists” —  to step up and embrace the challenge of tackling climate change one day at a time, and ultimately, to experience the personal satisfaction of career devoted to the environment.

He’s right: we do need you.

Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice. Hope is the belief against all evidence to the contrary that there are better days ahead and that together…we can shelter future generations from the ravages of climate changePresident Obama at UC Irvine Commencement, June 14, 2014





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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jay Famiglietti
Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'