President Obama on Saturday challenged the 2014 graduating class of UC Irvine to build on the legacy of the 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 a commencement ceremony at Angel 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 man-made 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 as the space race launched in the Kennedy era did, 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, while 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, Urbana-Champagne. "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 were a measure of how far the relatively young campus has come since it was dedicated in 1964 by President 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.
"I was proud to be an Anteater today," he added, referring to the school's mascot.
On the platform with Obama was James McGaugh, 82, a professor of neurobiology at UC Irvine who was among those who had turned out to watch Johnson dedicate the campus in a makeshift stadium before about 12,000 people.
Back then, "the nation was engulfed in a very unpopular war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement was in full swing and we were struggling to cope with the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy," he recalled. "I've lived long enough to become the only faculty member who is a bookend of sorts. UC Irvine went on to become the best university established in the United States in 50 years."
UC Irvine undertook an unusual campaign to persuade Obama to be its 2014 commencement speaker, enlisting alumni and students to sign postcards and appear in videos. In one, 7-foot-6 freshman basketball center Mamadou Ndiaye gazes into the camera as he towers over a cardboard cutout of Obama and says, "Mr. President, we should play ball together."
Obama received three standing ovations during the 25-minute speech, which took place under blazing sunshine that had thousands of participants shielding their faces with commencement programs.
Obama told the crowd to forgo cynicism about the future.
"Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice. Hope is what gave young soldiers the courage to storm a beach and liberate people they never met," Obama said in a reference to the D-day ceremonies he attended last week.
"Hope is what gave young students the strength to sit in and stand up and march for women's rights, and civil rights, and voting rights, and gay rights, and immigration rights.
"Hope is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that there are better days ahead, and that together we can build up a middle class, and reshape our immigration system, and shield our children from gun violence and shelter future generations from the ravages of climate change."
Added Obama: "I cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow."