06/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Global Warming: a Test for the Next Greatest Generation

The following is an edited version of the commencement address I gave on May 30 to the 2008 graduates of my alma mater, The Webb School, a college prep school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee.

Forty years ago, I was sitting where you are, about to graduate from Webb School. It was a time of great joy and relief and hope.

But 1968 was also a scary time. We were mired in a war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. The Democratic convention would soon be disrupted by protests. Worst of all, we were still trapped in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Just six years before that, the Cuban missile crisis had brought us to the very brink of nuclear war. Over at my house, 10 miles from here in Shelbyville, my family had a fallout shelter, as did a lot of families. We hoped that if the missiles started raining down, we would somehow be saved by a concrete sanctuary in our basement.

Now compared with that, 2008 doesn't seem so bad. The Soviet Union is long gone, Russia is friendlier, and the chances of nuclear war seem much reduced. Yes, we do have the war in Iraq and our war against terror, but none of this threatens us with instant annihilation. People stopped putting fallout shelters in houses a long time ago. You don't even have to worry about a military draft, as I did in 1968.

But I'm afraid that this is a scary time, scarier than most people realize. We no longer worry so much about a sudden nuclear catastrophe, but we face a long-term, slow-motion disaster that could eventually be just as devastating. If you've paid any attention to science news in recent years, you can guess that I'm referring to climate change, also known as global warming. If we don't do something about it, climate change will slowly but inexorably transform the landscape and affect the lives of billions of people. Believe me, it's far more threatening to us than terrorism.

My fellow Tennessean Al Gore calls it "a gathering storm" and compares it with the rise of the Nazis and the other Axis powers in the 1930s. Americans were slow to respond to that threat, but when they did, they were unstoppable. With their heroism in World War II, my parents' generation did nothing less than save the world. For that, they have rightly been called "the greatest generation."

Because of their actions, I got a chance to grow up in the most wonderful country on earth in the most prosperous time in history. Thanks to our parents, my generation has had it good. We've had it easy. We're accomplished a few things, but no one will ever call us the greatest generation. We're never really been tested.

You, however, will be tested. Because the prosperity humans have enjoyed for the last 60 years is starting to put pressure on the planet. There are 6.7 billion humans now, and earth is feeling the strain. We're changing our climate, and we're also using up our resources, chopping down forests, stripmining the seas and crowding out other forms of life.

We can't go on like this forever. Something has to give. We have to change the way we do things. We will not, nor should we, give up our economic growth. That's our lifeblood. But we have to have a different kind of growth. We have to transform our energy system so that we don't spew out carbon dioxide and wreck our climate. We have to recycle materials instead of just using them and then dumping them somewhere. We have to learn how to grow without exhausting our resources. That's called sustainable development, and you'll hear a lot about it in college. You can even get a Ph.D. in it now.

This is a great challenge that lies ahead of you. But with every great challenge comes a great opportunity. You will be called upon to transform our economy. Like my parents' generation, you will be drafted to save the world. You could be the next greatest generation.

That's pretty exciting, when you think about it. An opportunity like this doesn't come around for every generation. And transforming the economy will be big business. You'll have plenty of jobs to choose from. The richest men and women in the future will be the captains of sustainable development, the people who take the lead in building the new industries that will solve our environmental problems. The business people who don't catch the new wave will be drowned.

Some of you may have seen an old movie from 1967 called The Graduate. A young man named Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college, and his parents throw a party for him. During the party, a business executive comes up to Benjamin with some career advice. "I just want to say one word to you," the executive declares. "Just one word -- plastics." I don't know what the magic word or two would be today. Would it be "wind" or "solar" or "nuclear power" or even "carbon sequestration"?

It will probably take some combination of all those technologies to stop climate change. I can't tell you exactly how to do it. But I would like to offer just two pieces of advice on how to approach the challenge. These are simple concepts that you've already learned here at Webb. The trick is, to never forget them.

The first piece of advice is: think for yourself. Be skeptical of standard thinking and easy answers. Don't blindly follow a particular ideology. Don't march under one party's banner. Don't be a partisan. One thing I know for sure is that the solutions to climate change will not be Democrat solutions or Republican solutions. They will be bipartisan solutions achieved with the combined brainpower of leaders on all sides of political debates.

I think this year's election should give us a great deal of hope. John McCain has always been a bipartisan kind of guy. While most Republicans have ignored climate change, McCain joined with a Democrat to sponsor the first major effort in Congress to do something about global warming. And Barack Obama has made rising above partisanship the major theme of his campaign. So, no matter who wins, I think things could be better in Washington than they are now.

The other piece of advice is something you've heard time and again here at Webb: be honest. Sawney Webb [the school's founder] had a colorful way of making this point. We've enshrined it in the school motto. Nole Res Subdole Facere. "Don't do things on the sly." "Always conduct yourself," Sawney declared, "so that if at any moment, the keen sunlight of publicity were to shine down on you, you would not be ashamed." Gee, if Elliot Spitzer had followed Sawney's advice, he would still be Governor of New York. If Bill Clinton had taken Sawney's words to heart, instead of a White House intern, we never would have heard of Monica Lewinsky and, who knows, maybe Al Gore would be President right now.

Sawney's warning against doing things on the sly was a clever way of teaching a more fundamental principle: be honest, be truthful. That is as important now as it ever has been. In the future, we will desperately need leaders who will tell us the truth about the environmental crisis. We will need political leaders who will tell us the truth about what we need to do to transform our economy. We will need business leaders who are honest about their companies' operations and who value sustainable development and long-term profits instead of short-term gains.

Where are we going to find these new leaders? Leaders who tell the truth and use the truth to take action. Well, I have a strong feeling that some of those leaders are sitting in front of me right now. In fact, I predict that 40 years from now, one of you will be standing in front of the class of 2048, describing how you and your generation saved the world. You will be the next greatest generation. And, on behalf of the grandchildren I hope to have someday, I thank you.