Agents of Change Remarks

July 22, 2019

President Napolitano spoke to a gathering of universities and advocates focused on sustainability in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 22, 2019. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you for that kind introduction, President Ono. I also want to thank the University of British Columbia for your gracious welcome here at this beautiful campus. And I want to acknowledge that we are here tonight on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.

I am honored to be billed as an Agent of Change – unfortunately I left my superhero cape at home.

In all seriousness, I am thrilled to be here this week for the University Climate Change Coalition Vancouver Summit, and proud to work with President Ono and other higher education leaders in this coalition. Members of this coalition believe we have a moral responsibility to take swift action on climate change, and I am grateful to have such committed and ambitious partners in this effort.

As fellow research institutions, we are banding together in the name of science and all of humanity to protect a rapidly changing – and warming – globe. Together, we are agents of change.

Agent is an apt word in this case. It comes from the Latin verb agere, which means “to drive,” “to lead,” or “to act.” Interestingly, adding the prefix “co-” creates the word, cogere – literally, “to drive together.” And that has evolved into the English word “cogent” – meaning something clear, logical, and convincing.

I like to think that as university communities, we are driving change together. We are pursuing the truth for the public good, and providing cogent evidence that can lead to better decision-making, and ensure a better future for us all.

Now, we often talk about the future in vague terms, but let’s drill down on some specifics for a moment.

Let’s talk about the 44,000 children born in British Columbia in 2017. Or the 471,000 babies born in California that same year. This is the generational cohort that will go on to become UBC’s and the University of California’s class of 2040. What kind of world are they inheriting? And what is our responsibility to shape that future?

For my part, I am often thinking about what the University of California can do as an institution. I ask myself, what is our moral obligation to shape a better future for that class?

And when I am overwhelmed by the gravity of that responsibility, I like to think about the nearly infinite possibility that universities bring about.

The writer Joan Didion – a UC alumna – once said that the University of California is the most coherent expression of the California possibility.

I think she meant the possibility staked out on the pioneering edge of hope – the kind of possibility seen by people who discover previously hidden truths, or build entirely new creations. Possibility imagined by scientists  like Donna Strickland, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year for a revolutionary technique that led to the creation of ultra-powerful lasers. Strickland was just the third woman in history to win that highest of physics prizes.

One of the most striking things in Strickland’s speech at the Nobel banquet last winter was her crystallization of the sheer joy in the pursuit of truth in science and academia. She recalled working in the lab as a grad student on the project that would eventually lead to this Nobel Prize. At this lab, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was a hit song. And she recalled thinking that she wanted to have fun while working, too – and that she’d done just that in her career studying lasers.

Strickland said that she thinks experimental physics is especially fun, because, and I quote: “Not only do you get to solve puzzles about the universe or on Earth, there are really cool toys in the lab. In my case, I get to play with high-intensity lasers that can do magical things, like take one color of laser light and turn it into a rainbow of colors."

There is something pure and beautiful about the articulation of a scientist’s love for their work. The sheer delight in pursuing new frontiers, and seeing the world in a new light that has never seen been witnessed or understood before.

Just contemplate for a moment all of the thinkers, scientists, artists, and the multitude of other academics at research universities across the world at work right now. Think about those at work on this campus right this minute. Imagine the power of what they are discovering – the questions they are asking, the problems they are solving, and the solutions they are building as we sit here.

Humans have an amazing capacity for adaptation, progress, and pushing beyond the limitations of current civilization. For the grand challenges we now face – the global climate crisis being chief among them – we need to tap into our deepest stores of ingenuity, resilience, and creativity, and we must resolve to shift the trajectory of our future. As universities, we can – and should – act as agents of change.

The stakes are clear. Both British Columbia and California suffered the worst wildfire seasons on record last year. Sea levels are rising across the globe. And we know that the poorest nations are hit the hardest, and that the largest emitters of greenhouse gases are not all doing their part.

This is a moment for action. We cannot be intimidated by the scope of this problem. We must stretch the boundaries of what’s possible and pursue audacious, pioneering solutions. We must remember that human beings have done this before, and can and will do it again. And again, and again.

It was researchers at the University of California at Irvine – led by atmospheric scientist Ralph J. Cicerone – who first theorized in 1974 that chloro-fluoro-carbons in aerosol spray cans could harm the Earth's ozone layer. At the time, their findings were ridiculed by chemical industry critics who argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant taking action against these useful compounds.

But their hypothesis paved the way for subsequent research that confirmed these gases had created a hole in the ozone layer – a discovery that captured the public’s attention and galvanized the world to action. In 1987, world leaders finalized the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty phasing out the use of chemicals responsible for ozone depletion. Thanks to unprecedented cooperation under the protocol, the hole in the ozone is now shrinking.

It takes real willpower and guts to act in the face of massive cultural forces that have shaped our distant and recent past. I believe that research universities like UC and UBC can provide the tools we need as a human race to take action in the face of a potential climate apocalypse.

As University communities, we must communicate clearly and cogently, participate in the conversation while refusing to accept oversimplification. We must use our voices to hold our leaders accountable, and use our research to arm decision makers with the best information we have.

Meeting the challenge of climate change will require unprecedented global cooperation and leadership. It will take the ambitious and morally courageous actions of institutions, corporations, and nations – sometimes all working together – to pull us back from the brink of disaster.

I see signs of hope even in the face of the climate crisis, and I am grateful to the UC3 partners for their action, for their students’ passion, for their faculty and staff and entire communities working together to make a change. We are all agents of a massive, growing sea change. We can and we will make a difference.

Thank you to President Ono and the University of British Columbia for your leadership. And thank you all for taking the time tonight to imagine what we might accomplish if we all work together and push the bounds of what is possible.