CAMBRIDGE — Michael R. Bloomberg, the three-term former New York City mayor and vocal climate change activist, urged Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates Friday to save the planet before humanity pays a “terrible price” for stifled political inaction.
Bloomberg’s scathing rebuke of the Trump administration, which he depicted as “pandering to skeptics” after withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, coincided with the philanthropist’s launch of “Beyond Carbon.” The nationwide campaign represents a $500 million investment aimed at achieving a 100 percent clean energy economy.
“Today, Washington is a very, very big part of the problem, and we have to be part of the solution,” Bloomberg said in his commencement address. “This has gone from a scientific challenge to a political problem, and it’s time for everyone to recognize that climate change is the challenge of our time.”
It is a challenge, Bloomberg emphasized, that’s unlike any other in history.
His impassioned remarks were met with reverberating applause from the audience, surrounded by tall, leafy trees bordering Killian Court on a warm June morning. Born in Boston and raised in Medford, Bloomberg harkened back to his hometown roots — deliberately dropping R’s to perfect a local accent.
The Beyond Carbon campaign, Bloomberg said, will follow a four-pronged approach of phasing out coal plants, halting the construction of gas plants in favor of renewable energy, supporting grass-roots activists and local lawmakers, and encouraging support for environmentally conscious candidates. It marks a progression of the campaign — which started with Bloomberg, his foundation, and the Sierra Club in 2011 — to close at least one-third of coal plants.
“We can’t wait to act. We can’t put this mission off anymore,” Bloomberg said. “Mother Nature does not wait on the election calendar, and neither can we.”
Bloomberg frequently alluded to the pioneering leadership of President John F. Kennedy, who relied on MIT engineers to spearhead the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago. Contrasting Kennedy with the current president, Bloomberg said it is not only significant that Americans succeeded in the space race — but that they had “tried to get there in the first place.”
Using a similar metaphor, MIT President L. Rafael Reif told the nearly 3,000 graduates to “shoot for the moon” and “hack the world” by pursuing bold ideas without fear. He signaled to a cluster of more than 170 alumni in red blazers from the Class of 1969, who graduated just before the Apollo 11 mission was completed.
“Make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate,” Reif said. “More rigorous, inventive, and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.”
But Reif shared a gentler message as well, one of healing a broken world through common bonds of humanity. He likened today’s society to a “big, complicated family” stuck in the grips of a “terrible” argument.
Amid the solemn messages, there were lighter moments. Laughter and frenzied selfie-taking captured the excitement from the Class of 2019. Filling the outdoor space were about 14,000 friends and relatives, shuffling between folding chairs to catch a glimpse of their graduate — before waving wildly or raising a smartphone above the crowds.
Around 1,100 students — clad in simple black robes, mostly with undecorated mortarboards — earned their bachelor’s degrees. An additional 1,905 students, festooned in colorful academic regalia, earned either master’s or doctorate degrees.
Lexie Erdmann, of Wilton, Conn., said her husband was graduating from the executive master of business administration program, with a certificate in sustainability.
“We have two young kids, so it’s been a busy two years,” said Erdmann, 37. “It’s great. We’re really proud of him.”
Evelin Limoeiro said she took a 10-hour flight from Salvador, Brazil, to cheer on her brother, who received a doctorate in politics.
“It’s happiness,” Limoeiro, 39, said, smiling widely. “It’s like a dream come true.”