President Obama on Saturday challenged the 2014 graduates of UC Irvine to build on the legacy of their Orange County campus, which was among the first to show that man-made chemicals were harming the atmosphere.
Speaking to more than 30,000 in attendance at the commencement ceremony held at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Obama urged the graduates to combat global warming and not be swayed by "a stubborn status quo, people determined to stymie your efforts to bring about change."
"When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it would be too expensive, that it would take too long," he said. "But nobody ignored the science. I don't remember anyone saying the moon wasn't there, or that it was made of cheese."
In a broadside to congressional climate-change deniers, he said, "There are some who duck the question by saying, 'Hey, I'm not a scientist.' Let me translate that for you: what that means is, 'I accept that manmade climate change is real, but if I admit it, I'll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot."
His remarks were frequently met with boisterous applause and whistles, and several standing ovations.
Far from being a job-killer, tackling global warming will spur innovation and economic opportunities, much like the space race launched in the Kennedy era, the president said.
"We need scientists to design new fuels," he said. "We need farmers to help grow them. We need engineers to invent new technologies. We need entrepreneurs to sell those technologies. We need workers to operate assembly lines that hum with high tech, zero-carbon components. We need builders to hammer into place the clean-energy age."
"We can do this," he exhorted the assembled students, but also speaking to the legions of other graduates streaming from U.S. universities this month to start their careers. "We can make a difference. You can make a difference. And the sooner you do, the better."
Sociology major Jacqueline Rodriguez, 24, of Hacienda Heights, welcomed the president's words.
"I'm up for challenge." said Rodriguez, who is going on to a PhD program in education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Many people my age find it easy to ignore critical issues, and focus instead on self interests. I say, 'Be passionate about your work and mindful of the repercussions of your actions.' "
Obama's appearance kicked off UCI's 50th anniversary celebrations and was a measure of how far the relatively young campus has come since it was dedicated in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a field surrounded by undeveloped Irvine Co. ranchland.
Today, UCI is Orange County's second-largest employer and has produced three Nobel laureates, including F. Sherwood Rowland, a professor of atmospheric chemistry, for his discovery that aerosol propellants could destroy the Earth's ozone layer.
"When the President mentioned UC Irvine's Nobel prize and Sherry's groundbreaking work, we were thrilled," said Donald R. Blake, a professor of chemistry and atmospheric sciences and longtime collaborator of Rowland's.