In June of 1968, Dartmouth valedictorian James Newton devoted his commencement speech to the foremost issue of his time: the Vietnam war. Calling the conflict a “vast international atrocity,” Newton urged his fellow classmates to resist the war and avoid the draft, earning “energetic booing and walk-outs by parents” and criticism from the follow-up speaker, as the university’s alumni magazine wrote in a 1971 retrospective.
But per the magazine, Newton’s speech was also met with “cheers and standing ovations” from his classmates — dozens of whom no doubt had friends and loved ones sent overseas to fight. Newton’s call to action and the polarizing response from his audience “crashed ashore on newspapers across the country,” the alumni magazine reported. “In opposing the war, Newton spoke for the majority,” the New Yorker wrote in its coverage of the speech.
Now, an entire generation of young people is facing its own Vietnam, one with a distinct timeline: we have a little more than a decade to radically shift our society and economy to stave off the worst of climate change. Today, many high school and college seniors are using graduation not to celebrate entering adulthood, but to excoriate the government for its failed policy on climate change.
Robin Happel, a Tennessee native, wants her audience to consider how little time for action is left when she delivers her valedictorian speech at Fordham University’s graduation on Thursday. Given recent years of hot and hotter New York summers, Happel expects many of her fellow students, who have just completed four years of living on Fordham’s campus in the Bronx, will be well attuned to the issues she will raise in their adopted home.
“Being in the South Bronx, you can see the legacy of redlining in the city. Our neighborhood becomes a heat island during the summers,” she said. “I feel like even if you’re coming to this campus not knowing a lot about environmental justice issues, it’s hard to totally avoid.”
Happel has joined Class of 0000, a new movement of youth using graduation speeches to draw attention to climate injustice. Across the country this spring and summer, graduation speakers — from valedictorians to salutatorians to honorary commencement speakers — will repeat a common pledge in their speeches to “solve the climate crisis.”
“Graduation is a really powerful moment and a good opportunity to take the stage and have everyone listen to what young people have to say,” said Hakim Evans, a fellow with Alliance for Climate Education, the group collaborating with youth climate organizations such as Sunrise and Earth Guardians for the effort.
Last year, Evans worked with a campaign that encouraged graduation speakers to devote time in their speeches to any social justice issue of their choosing. The group chose to direct its attention this year towards a single cause that has electrified young people across the country and the world.
“Climate change affects everyone, even if it’s in different forms and at different magnitudes,” Evans said. “Droughts, floods, poor air quality, pollution, poor corporate governance. It all affects the environment around different communities and it’s all under the umbrella of climate change and environmental impact.”
Inspired by widespread youth climate strikes both across the US and around the world this winter — and disappointed that she was unable to participate in a school walkout in March — Happel responded to a Class of 0000 ad she saw on social media.
For Happel, an environmental studies major and the daughter of field biologists, climate change has always been on her radar, but it has become particularly personal over the past few years. Hurricane Florence flooded her parents’ house in Tennessee last fall, while other intense storms in her home state caused devastating floods, endangering friends of Happel’s and damaging the region’s struggling economy.
“It’s been really rough, honestly,” she said. “There’s so much data showing that it’s only going to get worse. We’re going to have drier summers and wetter winters in a lot of Appalachia due to climate change. It is a very personal issue for me because I think the South is going to be hit particularly hard.”
The Class of 0000 speech will echo the sense of urgency Happel and other young people feel about the future of their homes and their livelihoods. “We’re taking zero excuses. We want zero emissions. There’s zero time to waste,” Evans said.
Speakers will also vow to vote only for 2020 candidates with plans to get to zero emissions. On social media, the campaign is encouraging followers to share posts encouraging politicians and presidential candidates to act on climate, including photos of those politicians from their high school and college days.
“Cory Booker — he looks the same,” Evans laughed about the New Jersey senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. “He was, like, in a little football jersey, and he looks no different.”
Happel will give one of the first speeches of the campaign on Thursday, which will be followed by dozens more in other states.
“I feel like I’ve made at least a little bit of difference” with her speech, she said. “And if we all try to speak up about climate change, then we can have a real impact.”