Ernest Moniz: 2022 Graduate School Commencement Address

Author: Notre Dame News

Well, President Father Jenkins and Madame Provost and colleagues, thank you for welcoming me here. I do have to say that the provost was somewhat cruel. Not in the Room Rater descriptiont, but in the dates she pointed out, aging me very very considerably but accurately. But it really is a pleasure and an honor to address the 823 graduate degree recipients, plus family and friends of this great University, one that advances moral and ethical values in addition to education and scholarship. And then tomorrow to be welcomed into this community with an honorary degree, which I understand should not be confused with your hard earned degrees.

The advanced degree holders from Notre Dame have tremendous capacity, agency and therefore responsibility to improve the human condition in very challenging times. Now I recognize that the half-life for a graduate remembering who their commencement speaker was or the remarks they made is optimistically a year, which gives me a 10 to the minus-15 probability of remembering my own commencement speaker. And that’s actually pretty accurate to be honest. But nevertheless, I’ll be optimistic that I might at least influence your short-term vectors because long-range plans generally succeed as a sequence of short-term plans. So maybe the first one can get off in the next days.

We live in a world with dizzying clock speed of technological and associated social change. One example: The iPhone was introduced in the middle of 2007. It literally changed society and how we live and work and play, and it’s had 13 generations in 15 years, each with greater capability in more or less the same package. Even though I have to admit to many pre-iPhone decades of experience, I seldom remember that world. And the only difference I think between you and me in this regard is that I don’t always have my iPhone in my hand or back pocket. But I’m equally dependent on it.

You, the Notre Dame graduate degree holders, are among those few prepared to best benefit from that high clock speed, because of how you’ve developed your independent thinking through research and analysis, especially when matched with entrepreneurial spirit. But you must also remember as you go out beyond these walls that not everyone, indeed most, can adjust easily to rapid change and dislocation, with level of education realistically having a strong connection to the ability to constructively adapt. So a principal responsibility of those with your gifts is to maintain and mend the social fabric that holds communities together and provides equitable opportunity for all in a rapidly changing society. That’s fundamental to the value system that you have bought into at Notre Dame. Social equity must be a reference point for all that you do. In doing so, collectively, you will also be asked to address a multiplicity of major challenges — euphemistically opportunities — that my generation has created but not resolved: climate, pandemics, Ukraine and the specter of nuclear weapons use, biodiversity, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and we could go on. I’ll just focus some brief remarks on two of these were organizations that I now lead are fully engaged and have collaborated directly with Notre Dame and the Catholic Church over the years.

First, climate change and the necessary clock speed of clean energy transition. And second, although in inverse order, moving from nuclear weapons deterrence and disarmament to the very recent Russian declarations of very possible nuclear weapons use.

Let’s start with the nuclear threat. In 2014, the Nuclear Threat Initiative supported a project called “Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament,” managed by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. And the church has led across faith organizations in this domain, with the Vatican directly involved. But we’ve had a sudden reversal in the last couple of months with the Ukraine situation and the Russian president and some of his associates rattling the nuclear weapons saber and standing the nuclear order on its head. We had many decades when the U.S. and Soviet Union and then Russia, possessors of more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, accepted that the fundamental role of nuclear weapons was to prevent their use by the other. Now Russia has declared that nuclear weapons are integrated with conventional military posture by providing deterrents — at least their hope was — by providing deterrents against interference in a conventional war waged by a nuclear weapons state against a non-nuclear weapons state. This is a major elevation of nuclear risk, threatening humanity, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the threat has not translated into battlefield success, somewhat ironically. Our job is the Jiu Jitsu move of illuminating the lack of utility of nuclear weapons, accelerating the path to nuclear weapons elimination. We cannot let others conclude that nuclear saber rattling creates advantage, as some have done, because it really hasn’t. By far most of the new graduate degree recipients here today were not born before the Cold War ended and many of us collectively exhaled as though that threat was behind us. It’s not, unfortunately. It falls to you to put this into your busy agendas as a significant threat to you and those who will follow you. Civil society and the Church need now to rejoin these efforts in the face of the new nuclear threats to humanity. 

Let’s turn to climate and the clean energy transition. It’s not usual that turning to climate is turning to a lighter subject. I go back to clock speed when I note that we are talking about displacing and replacing the entire massive energy system, accounting for maybe 8-9 percent of GDP, in about a quarter century — using both a mix of technologies that are available but need to scale dramatically with commensurate new infrastructure, and others that remain to be invented with costs affordable to us but even more important to the energy underserved in poor and low- and middle-income countries. The potential for social disruption is enormous unless creativity is directed at social equity. We cannot have massive numbers of displaced workers or displaced communities if we are to succeed both operationally and morally. In this part of the country, the Upper Midwest, think about the shift from internal combustion engines in cars to electric vehicles. Manufacturing, supply chains and job skills are heading for dramatic change in as little as a decade, and this in an industry that historically provides perhaps the best opportunities for African-American upward mobility. These issues were addressed in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, Care For Our Common Home, and in two meetings at the Vatican managed by Notre Dame’s business  school. These meetings utilized the considerable convening power of the Vatican, the Pope and Notre Dame to bring together major financial industry leaders with international oil and gas CEOs and a few energy/climate policy leaders. Two consensus documents emerged, even with these disparate communities, one advocating the importance of pricing carbon dioxide emissions, the other calling for transparency in the carbon performance of companies. This was a good step, but it has to be seen as not close to the whole job. For example, the carbon emission price would certainly be a very effective, at least potentially, climate and energy transition policy, however, it has the potential to be very socially regressive depending on how the funds are used. So the carbon pricing must be supplemented by an economically progressive policy because all that money that comes from a carbon price must preferentially go to those who would be most impacted by higher energy prices. So again, without this, neither the Pope’s call to moral action nor the political need to minimize the political headwinds that resist climate mitigation will be accomplished. We need to take care of the planet, the people and advance social equity to have success in either domain.

I might add that Fr. Jenkins was directly engaged in both the disarmament and climate initiatives.

So you have a challenge in addressing the nuclear security and climate threats from many perspectives — political technical, social — all within a society that is increasingly divorced from fact and data — now  called truth decay — which may pose the initial challenge that must be overcome for any of the major issues that we deal with, that long list that I mentioned at the beginning. But again, you are among the few with the needed tool set. What you need, of course, is the will and commitment to use it. It starts by not being paralyzed by the magnitude of the threats, but rather, by creating your positive vision of the future, a world that is secure without nuclear weapons and with clean energy and social justice domestically and globally. The focus that is too often taken on how bad it will be does not bring along our friends, our family, our colleagues in society. We need to develop a positive vision and work towards that. You also need to recognize that even though it sometimes feels very daunting, you have the agency to move the needle on these nuclear and climate threats and on the others as well. Too many excuse inaction by calling on governments, for example, to deal with these issues and then complain when they don’t. And you must carry with you the values that are associated with this premiere Catholic university. Values drive culture, and in the words of Peter Drucker, a business management guru of many decades ago, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.” And this sentiment carries over to the challenges we discussed today. It’s your world, it needs engagement with your tools and values, with social equity a critical enabler.

Now, I could not envision the future any more now than I could in 2006 imagine the iPhone 13. But I feel a lot better if you are dedicated to that future at all levels of societal organization — family, community, country, humanity. So congratulations, again, on your earned degrees. And I will end by congratulating the families who, with your degrees, now may shed some responsibility of financial dependence.

Thank you very much