"Best Is a Future Free of Fossil Fuels": Deval Patrick Inspires UMass (and Me)

Each spring, millions of Americans at 1,000s of High Schools and Universities sit through commencement speeches. While many are filled with overused clichés and serve only as a speed bump en route post graduation parties, others represent mind-changing moments that "are truly worth remembering, or so well-said that they stick in the memory longer than just about anything else" with language worth returning to time and time again. Paul Hawkens' is such a speech, framing our environmental challenges in a way directly relevant to the life choices of the students who were sitting before him.

You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation... but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

Politicians are standard on the commencement rounds, typically providing pablum rather than substance. Sometimes, a politician takes a commencement speech to make a statement of fundamental importance, to move past photo opportunity to political leadership. Such is the case with Governor Deval Patrick's May 9 speech at the University of Massachusetts (key climate/energy extracts here).

Patrick opened with his perspective that education is about something greater than securing a job and that the graduates would put something central to their desires for the future: "above all I hope you will choose to be good citizens."

your education here at UMass is about more than preparation for being good employees. It is about preparation for citizenship itself.

Good citizens take an interest in people and issues outside themselves. They understand community, in the sense of seeing their stake in their neighbors' dreams and struggles as well as their own. They inform themselves about what's happening in their community. They volunteer. They listen. They take the long view. They vote.

Good citizens don't just live and work in a community. They build community.

With that in mind, Patrick laid out what is the greatest challenge today for being able to "build community":

no policy choice before this community, this Commonwealth and this Nation is more emblematic than climate change.

After discussing climate science (highlighting the just released National Climate Assessment, 2014) and laying out Massachusetts' progress in energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate mitigation/adaptation, Patrick laid out what we need from energy policy:

the time has come to set a new standard that ensures that, at every point in time, at every moment, we are getting the cleanest energy possible. It means energy efficiency first. It means zero-emission electricity next - solar, wind, and hydro. It means lower-emission electricity last - natural gas, an imperfect choice but best of the fossil fuels. And it means high-emissions sources never.

We should not be gleefully pursuing and celebrating an "All-of-the-Above" energy policy, which fosters continued investment in dirty energy sources along with moves toward clean energy, but must prioritize throughout our economy and our policy moves toward a cleaner energy system.

This is what we call a "clean energy standard," and we should set one for our state that puts us on a path to reduce our emissions by fully 80 percent by mid-century. It's not the ideal today, but it will get us there tomorrow. It's how we move from good to better to best.

Patrick is laying out that 'prioritizing' clean over dirty isn't perfection, isn't "best", but provides a path toward "best".

What's the best?

The best is a future free of fossil fuels.

A question:

Has a governor ever before made such a direct call for entirely getting off fossil fuels?

In a sentence, what is that "best ...future":

It's an economy driven by homegrown, independent sources of renewable energy, cutting edge technology, and hyper-efficient cars and buildings.

This provides a positive and optimistic vision -- that we can address climate change with leveraging our capacity for innovation with clean energy and efficiency throughout the economy.

Even better,

It's a future within our grasp.

While every day makes the climate crisis worse,

We don't have to wait for disaster:

the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone,

but because humankind imagined a better way and then reached for it.

It is time to "imagine a better way" and create that "best future free of fossil fuel".