The Laudato Si’ generation: Why I gave my graduation speech on climate change

Demonstrators join the People's Climate March in Washington to protest President Donald Trump's stance on the environment April 29. (CNS photo/Mike Theiler, Reuters)

Earlier this spring, Paul Campion of Loyola University Chicago and I dedicated one minute of our graduation speeches to demand action on climate change. We spoke as members of the Class of Zero, a new campaign encouraging graduation speakers to call for “zero emissions, zero excuses and zero time to waste.” While I have a background in renewable energy, it was not the science that motivated me. It was my faith. 

Last fall, I met Marquetta Goodwine, or Queen Quet, an alumnus of Fordham University. She is the leader of the Gullah/Geechee people, a group of African Americans who inhabit land stretching across the American South and identify with a mix of Creole and African culture. It is no exaggeration to say that someday the Gullah/Geechee land may simply slip into the sea. 


At first, I assumed Queen Quet and I would have nothing in common. She has been invited to present at meetings sponsored by the United Nations; I sometimes snuck into U.N. briefings as little more than the coat check girl. What bound us together, however, was our shared Jesuit education. As a fellow Fordham graduate, Queen Quet credits her alma mater with training her to be a leader and giving her connections at the United Nations that have sustained her advocacy for climate justice. She, like Paul Campion and other environmental leaders I have met, is driven by not only science but also faith.  

Students like me are the generation of “Laudato Si’.” By the time Pope Francis met with Greta Thunberg, many of my friends and I had already joined the student walkouts she inspired across the world to demand action on climate change. Inspired by the Ignatian value of faith in action, I wanted to do more than sit in biology class. 

Inspired by the Ignatian value of faith in action, I wanted to do more than sit in biology class.

I joined the Class of Zero and spoke of the climate crisis at graduation partly for Queen Quet but also for myself and others my age who look to the future with more fear than hope. And I joined the campaign for the people my age I will never meet—those who were not as lucky to escape the fires that ravaged my east Tennessee homeland and those who lost their lives in cyclones, floods and hurricanes that have made headlines and shattered lives since my fellow students and I first set foot on Fordham’s campus. 

The president of Fordham University, Joseph McShane, S.J., is fond of saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I have learned from Father McShane that to truly live the ideals of our Jesuit education, we must embody “bothered excellence,” concerned with the world outside our gates.

Last spring, Fordham signed a climate declaration backed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We are also a client of New York City’s largest solar array, which has the potential to help lower energy costs for many outside our campus. For families struggling to make ends meet, anything that helps keep the lights on can be life-changing. For those living in poverty around the world and most affected by climate change, we have a moral duty to act, as powerfully stated by the pope earlier this June.


Is it possible to turn the tide, or have we already crossed critical tipping points? The Southern faith traditions I was raised in—the mantle of Dr. King carried by the modern Poor People’s Campaign—hold that there is always time to do what is right. I firmly believe joining the Class of Zero will not have been in vain. At the very least, I will know that I did not do nothing.

In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis says that all life is created with a purpose. “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God,” he writes. Perhaps it is naïve to believe that students like Paul and I were placed here for a purpose. Yet the very essence of faith is to believe in something beyond a random, meaningless existence. 

My Jesuit education has guided me toward a path of service for the common good. Like Queen Quet, Father Daniel Berrigan and other Fordham Rams before me, I choose to pay it forward, not simply in a speech but in action. It is truly a blessing to graduate from a school like Fordham and it is my pledge to do what I can to pass on that blessing, wherever my life may lead.

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Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Ms. Happel, those of your generation must organize politically and quickly to initiate the necessary changes as soon as possible. I'm afraid my baby boomer generation is too enamored with their little creature comforts to be anything but an impediment. And given the miracles of modern medicine, we won't be getting out of the way soon enough.

Oz Jewel
2 months 2 weeks ago

Robin Happel
When you are in late middle age and feeling the bite of the wintry summers of the grand solar minimum induced cold, will you apologise for being such a cocksure dupe of the climate crisis alarmists?

It is not your fault, the adults around you are to blame for failing to do due diligence about the information with which the mass media and the world wide web is awash.

Now, if you have any integrity left you after an education based on propaganda, do your own due diligence.

You will find on Youtube lectures and presentations by genuine competent scientists debunking, with verified data, each every and all of the claims made by the IPCC and the media and those with financial and political interests in benefiting by the lie.

Google - Freeman Dyson, 90 year old early climate expert, Willy Soon, William Happer, Patrick Moore from Greenpeace, Richard Lindzen
Google - Grand Solar Minimum or Ice Age Farmer

If you have confidence in your intellectual ability and if you put aside prejudice induced by back-biting, calumny and detraction and concentrate on the DATA, (not output from inadequate computer models which is not data but estimates), you will find good reason to re-evaluate the whole question.

You will find it proven by observation and data that change in carbon dioxide is not the determinant of changes in average earth temperature but FOLLOWS and does not LEAD the rise and fall as demonstrated by palaeontology.
Oceans warm, carbon dioxide out-gasses - oceans cool, carbon dioxide dissolves, just like in Coca Cola.
You will find that the so called greenhouse effect in vastly predominantly due to water vapour and clouds and changes in these are very important.
You will find the data that shows the changes in the solar system, the Sun and the orbit of the planets, combine to produce the climate at any one time.
It is very complex, but clear evidence that puny mankind has not been left with such a fragile earth by the Almighty that we can accidentally break it by using energy to build and maintain civilisation.

What can you lose by honest examination of the data from all sides of a question?

Alan Johnstone
2 months 2 weeks ago

You have probably wasted your time.
If you look at the other article America has published under her name, you will see she thinks the deity is female and has an arts literary education and would be incapable of understanding what those professors are talking about.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

When I hear climate contrarian Freeman Dyson mentioned, I think of genius Nicola Tesla. Inventor of the power grid and the AC motor, among other things, he was unmistakably brilliant. However, in his later years, he became obsessed with the idea of broadcast power, radiating radio waves from central towers to be picked up and used as a source of power. It was a crackpot idea that he even persuaded investors to support. He was, in addition to a brilliant technologist, a very good salesman. But even a freshman physics major would wonder why someone as brilliant as Tesla would ignore that the intensity of radiated power drops off as the square of the distance and that almost all the power would be uninterrupted and lost. Like Tesla, Dyson is brilliant, although not as practical as Tesla, but his climate contrarianism is strange. Perhaps his wrongness is due to his unbounding faith in technology and human capability to fix the problem. But even scientists have their arational side. Dyson is well known for his vision of the Dyson Sphere, an inhabited artificial structure that harnesses the full energy emittance of the sun and has the habitable area of two million earths. Maybe we'll build it 10 millennia from now, but we'll have to reduce global warming and survive the warming that's already wired in. And that means not listening to Dyson when he's full of it.
If H2O is the only greenhouse gas, how did we recover from snowball earth twice? The water vapor was trapped as ice. There was little H2O in the atmosphere due to the drop in temperature. It would take another greenhouse gas, CO2, which remains a gas at lower temperatures, to restore the planet to life. In addition, excessive vulcanism in the past has led to increased CO2 and mass extinction. An extreme example of CO2 is, of course, Venus. As for the earth, the math has been done based on the Planck radiation law. We are in peril and sacrificing a balance established for millions of years if we don't adapt our civilization to scientific facts. As for an honest examination, your sources are dishonest. Your viewpoint is essentially flat earther stuff now. The young authoress of the article and untold generations will suffer from our irresponsibility.

Oz Jewel
2 months 2 weeks ago

Central practical concept.
Earth was in a zone called the Goldilocks zone, not too hot and not too cold - just right, where water was able to co-exist in the three physical states of solid ice, liquid water and water vapour.
By the grace of God, since He installed living things on the planet, it has remained in the zone while the surface has undergone fluctuations in temperature between the complete absence of ice and snow from the entire earth to very large percentage of covered by polar ice caps, not always overlying land.

The Sun was colder then and has been warming ever since so the temperature of our globe has been the final result of its initial temperature of being molten at the formation of the moon and the input and loss by radiation of energy from the sun and the very much smaller energy produced from radioactive decay of elements prone to do so.

There was a blanket of atmosphere and over the aeons, it has thinned and its composition has changed hugely but all the time it has retarded the rate of heat loss in a variable fashion.
The heat flux from the sun is cyclically variable on top of a very slow rise.
The amount of power arriving at the planet varies by changes in its attitude and distance from the sun as a consequence of cyclical changes in the gravitational forces from the other planets accompanying us in orbit around the sun.

The greenhouse effect from all gases which contribute has been stable for the last few millions of years and the contribution from carbon dioxide has been falling ever since plants were created to utilise light energy to split it into oxygen, grow and emit oxygen of which there was very little free being so reactive. An added use of carbon dioxode was its use by organisms to make shells and corals. Vast, vast quantities are locked in the rocks consisting of forms of calcium carbonate.

The warming and cooling have been predominantly produced by external sources and events, the gas blanket has slightly modified the thermostat setting.

If you had any contemporary knowledge, you would know that real scientist, astronomers, are detecting the warming and cooling a couple of the other closer planets happening at the same time as on earth.
You would know that the CO2 contribution is log linear to quantity and is currently almost totally saturated.

We are in no peril from use of fossil fuel, none whatsoever.

Our sun going nova, meteorite strike, global nuclear war, biological warfare with genetically modified organisms maybe but not from running civilisation with stored sun power.

David Philippart
2 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you, Robin Happel, for your concern for our common home, this Earth that God has created and loves and entrusts to us. And thank you even more for your witness to our common Catholic faith. I especially am encouraged and challenged by the pursuit of "zero excuses, zero waste of time."

Chuck Kotlarz
2 months 2 weeks ago

"...a path of service for the common good." I wish Ms. Happel well on her journey. America's greatest generation made a journey to the moon. I am hopeful Millennials can make the next giant leap for mankind.


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