Where have we been as a people, and why is it important to remember? Where are we headed, and how can we, as individuals, make a difference?
These questions were just a few at the heart of U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III’s impassioned speech, given on Tuesday, Oct. 23, as part of the University’s Moon Landing in Context series, which drew over 200 attendees.
The grand-nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy currently serves as a Democratic Congressman in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and came to Framingham State to talk about climate change. More specifically, Kennedy hoped to instill a similar urgency into the pursuit of tackling climate change as his great-uncle did more than 50 years ago, leading the United States in an international race to put a now-famous first boot-print on the Moon.
Tuesday evening’s event kicked off with an introductory video, inviting audience members to reflect on where they were in the summer of ’69. While most attending the talk were not old enough to remember a time when even the prospect of the Red Sox winning a World Series was out of the question – as Kennedy jokingly reminded them – several were brought back to a summer of powerful music and rhetoric, protests, and, of course, giant technological and civilizational leaps.
Once the video ended, Irene Porro, director of the McAuliffe Center, introduced the Boston-born Kennedy to raucous applause.
Bright, beaming, and ginger-haired, he took the podium and began his speech, thanking the University for the opportunity to speak on such a dire issue.
Observing the number of young people and scholars in attendance, Kennedy emphasized the importance of their participation: “By studying our past, you are shaping our future. History-defining moments – from the Moon landing to public school integration – you can’t study them in isolation because, by their very nature, they shake our societal fabric to its core. And we are not the same afterwards,” he said.
Kennedy briefly spoke about Christa McAuliffe, noting that the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State exists as a constant reminder of the power of “ordinary people dreaming of extraordinary things, that too many were too afraid to pursue.”
The Congressman contrasted today’s issue of climate change with the 1960s space race, noting how the competition that existed among nations during that period differs from the problem of climate change, which calls out for global unification and an international coordination of efforts.
Kennedy addressed the speech made famous by JFK, particularly the line stating, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” He explained this ambitious mentality applies exactly to the challenge of fighting climate change.
“We are no longer proactively preparing for the threats that will arrive tomorrow,” he said. “Climate change has washed up on our shores, it has scorched our deserts, it has drowned our farms, and it has torched our forests – yesterday. We have no time to lose. And you all wouldn’t be in this room, minutes from that first pitch, if you all didn’t understand and appreciate the urgency of this moment,” he said.
When it comes to the question of whether we are actually able to stop climate change, “The answer has to be yes,” Kennedy said. However, he also said this was actually the wrong question to be asking. The right question is: “Do we have the capacity and the determination to try and solve it?”
This question proves harder to answer.
Luckily, the congressman came stocked with an arsenal of potential solutions, which were addressed during a Q&A session with the audience.
The primary question involved combating the resistance to scientific evidence of human-influenced climate change from political adversaries, and Kennedy admitted that the task can be frustrating, to put it mildly.
“You have to willfully ignore the evidence to get to that position. Here’s no other way about it. So, from my perspective – and I don’t want to make this event political-”
At this point, a woman in the audience interjected, “Oh, yes it is.”
Kennedy, chuckling with the rest of the audience, responded, “Look, if Congress isn’t gonna address it, you’ve gotta change Congress.”
“Public pressure is going to force that issue. The issue is not just going to solve itself,” he said. “What we can do is help support, cultivate, and encourage those individuals, but that has to be our effort. And that first option, which is change Congress, I’m working on it – I promise.”
Other questions ranged from asking whether it was a worthwhile effort to rebuild coastal cities with the knowledge that they will be devastated again later by future storms or disasters, and how workers in industries that will be replaced by green energy, such as coal miners, should be expected to deal with the loss of their livelihood.
Kennedy consistently went back to the refrain of public pressure and the need for people to both adapt to changing times by educating themselves about new opportunities coming with budding industries and to take independent action by using their political voice at the polls come November. “States gotta lean into this, companies gotta lean into this, and communities gotta lean into this,” he said. “We need to do an awful lot more on this, and you’ve got a shot in two weeks.”
Following the talk, Kennedy briefly responded to a few more questions as he exited the building.
He addressed why it is so important for young people to vote in November, saying, “Because the issues that we are confronting as a country, whether we address them or not, are going to be on the shoulders of your generation. Your generation is the largest in American history, and you’ll decide this election. You’ll decide it if you vote, and you’ll decide it if you don’t. And I sure hope you do.”
The final question was the one that was truly on everybody’s minds: What was he going to be for Halloween? Kennedy smiled and said that his daughter, fascinated with a dinosaur TV show, wants him to wear an inflatable T-Rex costume.
Despite this light-hearted remark, the tone of Kennedy’s speech was more serious. In his closing lines, he said, “To you, who can solve this problem, who will demand that we address it, who can help in unifying a nation, and hopefully a world in doing so, I say – ‘Hurry up.’”