On May 24, 2033, Bowdoin’s commencement speaker, Elias Grodin, was just a first year; he was selected to speak because his birthday coincided with Bowdoin’s dramatic actions around climate change, announced in the summer of 2015. Below is the text of his speech.   

“Thank you for joining us to celebrate the 18th year of Bowdoin’s climate revolution, on this hot but clear and beautiful May morning. It’s remarkable to note that it was, of all things, a little boy that finally woke Bowdoin up to the challenges of climate change. To be precise, it was El Niño, the unusually warm waters off the coast of South America, that woke us up.

“Even though nine out of the ten warmest years recorded since 1880 occurred in the 21st century, the warmest years are typically magnified by El Niño. And that’s what happened in the spring of 2015, when snow melted early in Brunswick and hot and dry weather settled in for the spring and summer. Temperatures over 100 degrees sweltered the state, hammering the summer tourism business.  As we all remember —how could we forget!—dry lightning storms that had begun to frequent the coast triggered a forest fire that wiped out the entire 33 acres of Bowdoin’s famous white pines, even those that were 125 years old, some of the last old growth in the state. That fire was so worrisome and so saddening that we were forced, finally, to act.

“The fire came on the heels of increasingly strident warnings from the scientific community. As Justin Gillis reported in the New York Times on April 13 2014: ‘The countries of the world have dragged their feet so long on global warming that the situation is now critical, experts appointed by the United Nations reported...and only an intensive worldwide push over the next 15 years can stave off potentially disastrous climatic changes later in the century.’ This followed shocking and rare statements by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science urging the U.S. to act swiftly to reduce carbon emissions and lower the risks of climate catastrophe.

“All this was enough for the science, philosophy and history teachers at Bowdoin, who, with students at their sides, met with trustees to discuss meaningful action on climate. The trustees and administration realized that their worthy actions to reduce the carbon footprint of the school were important but not relevant to actually solving the climate crisis, and therefore could not be the foundation of the school’s climate program. Instead, the school decided to take high-profile, national action. The first step: the New York Times Op-ed by Barry Mills that, in its vision and scope, blew away Harvard President Drew Faust’s weak statement on the school’s climate plans from the previous spring. The second step: divesting the school’s endowment from fossil fuels. The argument at the time was simple: ‘Bowdoin cares about the future of our students. That’s why we are so focused on providing financial aid for those in need. But it doesn’t make sense to derive that financial aid from the very businesses—coal, gas, and oil—that are destroying the livability of the planet on which those students will live. Like a snake eating its tail, this is a self-defeating approach.’

“Little did the administration know that even though fossil fuels made up only a small percentage of the endowment, the great carbon crash of 2018—which followed the passage of a national carbon tax and renewable energy standard—would have cut the endowment’s return by a small but meaningful amount. Instead, Bowdoin’s reallocation of its investments into the Climate Leaders Fund far outperformed the S & P 500. (That fund, which included Starbucks, Ford and GE, also held positions in some small but growing Maine businesses focused on sustainability, like sportswear manufacturer Attayne, which recently purchased Patagonia and The North Face.) More important than the fiscal prudence of the move, the divestment was covered in the national and international press, and spread to 150 other major universities in the U.S.

“This was good news for Bowdoin, as applicants from concerned young people skyrocketed. It was also good news for the country, as the extensive press coverage, and subsequent shareholder actions that it led to, forced Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and BP into increasing their investment into renewable energy, efficiency, and carbon capture technology a thousand fold. The change was so radical, in fact, that this summer the trustees will meet again with students and science faculty to consider, of all things, buying back into Exxon Mobil stock, because that business is now a key part of the climate solution.

“Some have said it’s quite fitting that El Niño was the event to wake Bowdoin from its slumber into national leadership on climate. The term El Niño, of course, didn’t first refer to warm ocean currents: it referred to the Christ child. And the real El Niño’s message, about loving your neighbor and treating others as they would like to be treated, always had an eerie similarity to Bowdoin’s core commitment to the common good. It was 18 years ago today that we together—students, alums, administration and parents of students—collectively realized that in the modern world, the only sure way to protect the common good for the long term was to deal with the climate problem.

“We are not done. We still have miles to go. But today is a ceremonial moment, as we place the first white pine seedlings on these hallowed 33 acres that used to be called the Bowdoin Pines, and which we now call the Burn. We recognize that this problem can indeed be solved, and we are proud that Bowdoin was recently recognized by the president of the United States—the climate hawk and Unity College graduate Samantha Longo—as having led the charge. Today, as we place our shovels in the ground, we remember Walt Whitman’s words: ‘The press of my foot on the earth springs a hundred affections.’ For us, that affection is for the Bowdoin Pines of 2115, and the students who will walk among them as if we never had to do this work.”

Auden Schendler ’92 is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. Naomi Oreskes P’17 is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard.