A Call to Action for the Class of 2008

It's the time of year for big ideas.

Across the country students are taking the next step in their lives, moving from the comforts of home to the academic rigors of college, or from predictability of university life to the uncertainties of the workforce. This annual rite of passage provides students an opportunity to look back on their experience with a different perspective, but also to look forward with an eye towards defining their new role in the world.

Some of our nation's biggest ideas have sprung from these rituals that mark the spring, as hundreds of colleges and universities celebrate their annual commencement exercises. In 1947, then-Secretary of State George Marshall outlined his program of economic assistance to war-torn Europe in a graduation speech at Harvard University. In 1963 President Kennedy laid out his plan to end the testing of nuclear weapons during American University's commencement.

Those speeches became more than just ideas, and they shaped foreign policy for years to come. They addressed the important challenges of the generation -- building a sustainable peace and avoiding the threat of nuclear war.

As student leaders across the country deliver their own words of advice to this year's graduates, I hope they reflect on the spirit of Kennedy and Marshall because they have a unique opportunity -- in front of their teachers, their families and their peers -- to reflect on one of the greatest challenges of their generation.

This generation's challenge -- a rapidly changing climate -- is pressing and universal in its impact, affecting each and every student graduating this year and classes of graduates for decades to come.

The generation of students now leaving high school and college knows they will bear the burden of a changed planet unless we act now. In fact, more young people than ever recognize the urgent need to solve climate change. According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, young Americans are significantly more likely than their parents or grandparents to understand and accept the impact human activity has on our climate.

Fortunately, the inheritance of an irreversibly damaged planet is not set in stone. Science tells us the next few years are critical. If we do not begin dramatically decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions, we will pass the point at which we will no longer be able to stop the most devastating impacts of climate change.

The good news is that the solutions to this crisis exist. Unlocking innovative technologies to change how we power our lives will grow new and exciting sectors of our economy, helping ensure not just a healthier planet, but a healthier economy as well.

Through their commencement speeches student leaders have an opportunity to inspire and motivate their peers on this urgent yet solvable issue. It is a chance to remind their audiences that we share a common responsibility to address this crisis and invite others to be a part of the solution.

We are at a critical juncture on the issue, but our leaders will only act when the American people demand real solutions to the climate crisis. Because these students will have to live with the impacts of the decisions our leaders make today, their voices should be helping lead the conversation.

In that spirit, the Alliance for Climate Protection has set forth an invitation to student leaders to take advantage of a unique opportunity and discuss climate change in their commencement addresses. We have issued this Commencement Challenge because we believe that it will take the voices of those who will be most impacted by climate change to spur real action by our leaders.

We need their optimism and their sense of possibility. And much like winning World War II or ending segregation, it will take the determination and energy of youth to see our greatest problems through to a just solution.

So in this season of big ideas, we ask the leaders whose voices will be heard on campuses around the country to remind themselves and their peers of their shared responsibility and the incredible opportunities solving this crisis will make available.

Cathy Zoi is the CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a non-profit environmental organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore in 2006. Earlier this year, the Alliance launched the We campaign, a multiyear, multi-faceted effort designed to engage the American public and ignite a movement to address solving the climate crisis.