Remarks by Al Gore
Former Vice President of the United States
2005 Arts and Science / Engineering
Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony
The Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, May 26 | Homewood Field | 1:45 p.m.
Dr. William Brody, faculty, family of all the students and, most of all, the graduates here. And may I also mention the Board of Trustees and particularly single out my good friend, Sandy Greenberg. Sandy and Sue have been very close friends to my wife, Tipper, and me for all these years.
I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America [laughter, applause]. I don't find that to be particularly funny [laughter].
Commencement is a time of transition, and I've had my share of transitions. Put yourselves in my position just for a moment. For eight years, I flew on Air Force Two and now I have to take off my shoes to get on an airplane [laughter]. When I left the White House, shortly thereafter my wife, Tipper, and I one day were driving from our house in Nashville to a small farm we have 50 miles east of Nashville. We were driving along. Driving ourselves [laughter]. I know that seems like a small thing to you [laughter]. I looked in the rear view mirror and all of a sudden it just hit me. There was no motorcade back there.
It was close to dinnertime, so we began looking for a place to eat and we got off Interstate Highway 40 at the Lebanon, Tenn., exit, and found a Shoney's Restaurant. Low-cost, family restaurant chain. We walked in and sat at the booth and the waitress came over and made a big commotion over Tipper [laughter]. She took our order and went to the couple in the booth just next to ours and she lowered her voice so much I had to really strain to hear what she was saying, and she said, "Yes, that's former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper." And the man said, "He's come down a long way, hasn't he [laughter]?"
So the very next day — that's a true story and a continuing true story — the very next day, I flew to Africa on a Gulfstream jet to make a speech in Nigeria, in the city of Lagos. And I began my speech by telling that story I've just shared with you, pretty much the same way I just told it. Shoney's, low-cost family restaurant chain, Tipper and I were driving ourselves, and what the man said, and they laughed and I went on and made my speech about energy and then went back to the airport to fly back home. And I fell asleep on the plane until the middle of the night.
We landed on the Azores Islands for refueling and I woke up and they opened the door of the plane to let some fresh air in and I looked out and a man came running across the runway waving a piece of paper, yelling at the top of his lungs, "Call Washington! Call Washington!" And I thought to myself, "Middle of the night, middle of the Atlantic Ocean, what in the world could be wrong in Washington?" Then I remembered it could be a bunch of things [laughter]. What it turned out to be was that a journalist in Lagos had already written a story that had been printed by the wire services all over the United States. My staff was very concerned because the story began this way: "Former Vice President Al Gore announced in Nigeria yesterday, quote, my wife Tipper and I have opened a low-cost family restaurant [laughter] named Shoney's" and we were running it ourselves.
Before I could get back to the United States the late night comedians — Jay Leno, David Letterman — had already started in on me. One had me in a big white chef's hat with Tipper yelling, "One more, with fries." A few days later, I got a nice long hand-written letter from my friend Bill Clinton saying, "Congratulations on the new restaurant, Al [laughter]!"
I hope your transition goes more smoothly than mine. I've been enjoying mine, however. I am teaching. I'm a visiting professor, VP for short [laughter], a way of hanging on [laughter]. I've enjoyed the business world as well.
I want to say just a couple of things. First, mainly: Congratulations to all of you. Second, in preparing my remarks, in all seriousness I tried very hard to remember who spoke at my commencement in 1969. I have no idea [laughter]. Unless I've just tricked you into remembering, my bet is that 30 years from now you won't have any idea what was said here, but you will remember the parties tonight. You will remember your families being here, you will remember all the hard work that got you to this point and you'll remember how you felt. And I hope you feel great, because this is a remarkable achievement that we are honoring here today.
I do want to honor the occasion, however. My remarks will be brief, but I do actually have something to say and it's something I care about passionately and it's something I'd like you to care about as much as I do. For me, the subject of the global environment is connected to Johns Hopkins and I wanted to tell you why. Because on April 3, 1989, my wife and I came to the opening day baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox and, as some of you have heard, as this story's been told before, our son was hit by a car as we were leaving the stadium. And the following weeks, more than a month, I lived at the hospital at Johns Hopkins. But immediately I began to understand what this community is all about. Two off-duty nurses had taken their gear with them to the baseball game, just in case. And they were there almost instantaneously. The doctors, the nurses, the technicians, everyone who we encountered became a part of our extended family, at least in my heart. We will never, ever forget the care, the skill, the love that we experienced at Hopkins Hospital, which is part of this university.
And what we learned about the larger university family has always stayed with us as well. I talked just before coming out with a woman I saw outside the stadium that day. I talked with a man who drove me back to collect my kit and clothing from Washington to come back here to the hospital and I saw some others that gave me an opportunity to reflect on those moments.
But here's what I learned most, and I want to share it with you. In that hospital room, I looked at my schedule and for the next month there were events that had been put on my schedule that had such serious purpose and such a heavy significance and when they blew off my schedule, they had no weight or gravity whatsoever. At a moment when your priorities in life are crystallized for you, you can see things and feel things in a different way. I learned a lot from that experience, and it was during those long days and nights that I began to reflect on my priorities as a father and husband, friend, community member, and as a public servant. It was there that I began a book that came out two years later, called Earth in the Balance. And it is there that I began to reflect much more deeply about what we really are called upon to do as American citizens. Because having a good sense of priorities about what's important and what's not important is actually very difficult for us as individuals, and for us as a society.
I believe that we are in a period of unprecedented change. It's a clich‚ even to use that phrase. But our relationship, a relationship between human beings and this planet on which we live, has been unalterably transformed and we must accept responsibility for what we are doing with our actions and in our inactions. It is a new era.
I was reading a book recently by William Manchester called A World Lit Only by Fire. Some of you know the book. It's about the Middle Ages and the transition to the Renaissance. He commented on how the revolutionary change that swept through the European world was never imagined or suspected by those in positions of leadership at the time. And he explained why. Here's what he wrote: "Like all people at all times, they were confronted each day by the present, which always arrives in a promiscuous rush with the significant, the trivial, the profound, and the fatuous, all tangled together." He went on to say that they sorted through this snarl and, being typical men in power, chose to believe what they wanted to believe, accepting whatever justified their policies and convictions, and ignoring the rest.
After those days here at Hopkins, I really dug into a serious examination of the issue of global warming. I had first become concerned about it 38 years ago when I had the privilege of studying with the man who first measured CO2 in our earth's atmosphere, Roger Revelle, along with Professor [Charles] Keeling. In the House of Representatives, I began having hearings and continued it in the Senate. But after that time of reflection here, I went to the South Pole. I went to the North Pole. I went to Greenland. I went to the Amazon. I met with all the scientists I could meet with. And a lot has happened since then and a lot hasn't happened.
Here's what I want to say today in a nutshell: Global warming is a global emergency. It is now staring us in the face. It is the prospect of an imminent planetary crisis, a worldwide climate catastrophe with the clear potential to destroy our civilization unless we act decisively and urgently to avoid it. The time for temporizing and game playing and political evasion really must come to an end. The good news is this: By taking decisive and urgent action, we can still escape the worst consequences of this crisis. The even-better news is that, even though the solutions will be difficult in the extreme, we already have everything we need to be successful in this struggle, save perhaps the requisite political will. But in our democracy, political will is a renewable resource.
The first step in meeting this challenge is to restore political will and the integrity of our dialogue of democracy. The best news of all is that the changes that we will make to save our civilization are changes that will fill our lives with more meaning and make our society more humane. We do not have very much time in which to organize serious and decisive action. So we don't have any longer to delay in organizing the renewal of our political will.
I am an optimist in every way. I believe with all my heart that we will successfully meet this challenge, but make no mistake; we must see it for what it is. We must be unblinking in sharing with one another the reality that we now face.
In closing, the reason above all others that I'm optimistic is truly because of all of you. Lincoln once said ... "As our case is new, we must think anew." And then we will save our country. Our case is new. You think anew. You have fresh knowledge, hard won. You have convictions arrived at through intellectual struggle. You now face a transition at a time when all of us face a transition. Incidentally, I'll be going from here to another graduation, this time as a parent, not as a commencement speaker. It'll be two weeks from now, but between now and then, I'm about to get into a U-Haul truck [indecipherable] dorm room furniture, and lots of books, and drive from Boston to Nashville.
Congratulations, and good luck!
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