On May 15 I delivered the commencement address to graduates of the University at Albany's Geography and Planning program in upstate New York. I'd offer the same advice to all recent grads in fact, to anyone committed to ensuring a healthy future for the planet. Therefore, this month I'd like to share my remarks:
I'm sure many people are reminding you of what an important moment this is for you, both looking back and looking ahead. The choices you've madeor are still trying to makeabout your first job, your summer bumming around Europe, whether or not to extend or end that romance... and others will set the course for your future.
One can never know where a choice will lead you, which reminds me of one of Yogi Berra's mind-bending sayings "When you get to the fork in the road, take it!" The famous Yankees catcher also astutely noted, "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."
After graduating from college, I worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game 200 miles from the nearest road or village, competing with grizzly bears for the attention of spawning salmon in mountain streams. I was planning to set down roots in Alaska when I received a job offer from a French liqueur manufacturer in the Alps, a choice I took, though it doesn't appear on my resume.
Just as the choices you make will set your compass, choices we make as a nation will chart a course for the future well-being of the citizens of the United States and, indeed, the entire planet. Today and every day for the past three weeks, at least 200,000 gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf of Mexico from a disabled drilling rig in what appears to be the worst petroleum-related environmental disaster in history. Sea life, birds, the fishing industry, Gulf Coast tourism just beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina all hang in the balance. Weeks earlier, President Obama had announced a new policy aimed at increasing underwater oil drilling along the Atlantic Coast.
We cannot begin to wade into discussion of U.S. energy policy without thinking about our soldiers who are continuing to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan to safeguard our strategic position in the oil-rich Middle East, from which the U.S. derives about a fifth of its oil needs. On another front, the President has announced he is investing billions to expand our nuclear energy production capabilities. At the same time, the Secretary of Interior recently approved a massive wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts130 turbines filling 25 square miles.
At the heart of these confounding developments in our nation's energy policy is America's seemingly insatiable appetite for energy. With only four per cent of the world's population, we consume a quarter of its produced oil. In a similarly disquieting statistic, America generates about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, the primary drivers of global climate change.
Climate change is melting ice caps and causing prolonged droughts, massive wildfires and intense storms. It poses the risk of even worse catastrophes to come. While Congress debates whether or not climate change is happening, here in the Hudson Valley we feel its effects. Our wintertime climate now is comparable to that of Washington, D.C., a decade ago. At Scenic Hudson, the environmental organization I head, we're facing the very real possibility that waterfront parks we created will be under water by the century's end.
The good news is that you, the graduates of the University at Albany Geography and Planning program, are well prepared for taking on the challenge of climate change. Some of you may choose a career path drafting government policy, steering efforts of local communities to reduce their carbon footprints or working to create green infrastructure. Others of you may volunteer to serve on municipal boards or with environmental organizations, perhaps by helping to conserve land and create parks.
The key here is that we all can and must make a difference. With 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions originating in the home, personal decisions you make will have a huge impact on the planet's future. A study last year showed that through a dozen simple lifestyle changesnone of which would inconvenience uswe could reduce household emissions by 20 percent over the next decade. That's not enough, but it's a good start.
But you're ready to do so much more. You can help design the villages, cities and regions of the future. You can advocate, plan for and implement residential and commercial development that is close to mass transit stations, reducing our need for automobiles by as much as 50 percent. Bike lanes and trails can link people with their offices and shops.
Tackling climate change has to begin at the local and regional levels, and land conservation must play an important role. Every acre of forested land conserved from development sequesters tons of carbon dioxide in the organic content of a tree, root, and soil, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere where it becomes a greenhouse gas. By conserving farmland, we keep our food supply local and secure, reducing our carbon footprint. The average American meal is transported over 1,000 miles before it reaches our table.
The key to land preservation often lies with changing perceptions in the state capitol and town or village halls, where a mindset can prevail that open space and farmland are luxuries, pretty to look at or play in, but contributing little to government coffers. Yet parks are the linchpins of America's tourism industry. A study here in New York documented that every $1 the state invests in one of our parks results in $5 of local business in surrounding communities.
Believe it or not, protected open space and working farms cost communities less in municipal servicessuch as snowplowing and educationthan they deliver in taxes, while sprawling subdivisions often require a greater outlay than they contribute. And let's not forget the recreational and emotional value we derive from the land. Providing places close to home where more young people can engage in hiking, biking and other outdoor activities is the key to halting the childhood obesity epidemic. British researchers just released a study showing that spending as little as five minutes in a "green" open space increases our feeling of well-being throughout the entire day.
Whatever your career path, I urge you to protect the wilderness in your backyard while creating livable communities. Planning boards and other municipal committees are usually staffed by volunteers. Filling these positions with knowledgeable people who understand the benefits of implementing concepts such as traditional neighborhood design will lead to healthier, more economically vibrant towns and cities that reduce the stress we put on the planet. And if you have a political bent, run for office.
Your expertise and skills also can be critical to the success of grass-roots campaigns. You can lead efforts to keep the pressure on communities and developers to act responsibly. You know that a beautiful waterfront obscured by a wall of high-rises is a lost opportunity to connect people to a magnificent natural resource. You understand that a breathtaking forest that succumbs to a sprawling subdivision is gone forever. Just as important, you realize the costs such damage incurs. I urge you to put this information to use in whatever community you decide to call home.
To conclude with one last saying by Yogi Berra "The future ain't what it used to be." Global climate change raises the stakes on just about everything we do every day. But with your vision, skills, determination and leadership, you can ensure that our children and grandchildren have a future to look forward to a future more beautiful than anyone, even Yogi, could imagine.
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