Address by Chief Guest
Dr Peter Kalmus, Climate Scientist and Author
His Highness the Aga Khan;
Princess Zahra Aga Khan;
Guest of Honour Dr Peter Mathuki, Secretary General of the East African Community;
Chairman Zakir Mahmood and the Board of Trustees;
Chairman Moyez Alibhai and the AKU-Kenya University Council;
President and Vice Chancellor Sulaiman Shahabuddin;
Ladies and gentlemen;
And above all, to you, the incredible graduates:
Greetings and congratulations! What an honor it is to address you today, on this joyful occasion! Great job to all of you! I share your commitment to improving the lives of all beings on this Earth. I want to acknowledge AKU’s work to improve quality of life in the developing world, as well as the leadership that Prince Rahim and the AKDN are demonstrating in addressing climate change and environmental degradation.
Now, this strikes me as a strange time in our planet’s four-and-half-billion-year history for giving convocation speeches.
As a climate scientist, I see a meteor hurtling directly toward our achingly beautiful planet, and I don’t yet see society or world leaders mobilising to stop it. Fossil fuels are heating our planet at a rate of a tenth of a degree Celsius every five years. This may not sound like much, but for an entire planet to heat this quickly is both astounding and terrifying.
The disasters we are living through now are just the beginning. At every additional fraction of heating, climate disasters will come faster and hit harder. Like gut punches to our global society, they will increasingly stress infrastructure systems, economic systems, energy systems, food and water systems, political systems and ecosystems.
The proximal cause of climate destruction is burning fossil fuels. Before we had a fossil fuel industry, the planet was in energy balance. The same amount of energy came in as sunlight as went back out to space, so it stayed at a constant temperature. Burning gas, coal, and oil has changed that. It continues pushing our planet further and further out of balance, forcing it to heat up.
The crisis has been overwhelmingly caused by the Global North, with impacts hitting the Global South soonest and hardest. And powerful vested interests are doing what they can to block action. So, what can we do?
This is a question I’ve been grappling with for a very long time.
Sixteen years ago, I was a physics PhD student in New York City, in love with the universe and its mysteries, overjoyed to finally be part of the noble quest for human knowledge. I was interested in cosmology – the big questions, where we come from, and where we’re going.
The year 2006 brought two big changes to my life. First, I became a dad, which was expansive. It connected me to the future. And second, I heard a lecture about how the Earth was out of energy balance and heating up. This lecture rattled me. Earth is out of energy balance? This is absolutely monumental news, literally the biggest story on the planet. It was then, and it’s even more so today.
I started learning about climate change. I tried to get my university to switch to electricity that came from wind power. I could only find one other person on campus who supported my cause – and not for a lack of trying, because back then, hardly anyone cared about climate change. Social norms around climate hadn’t started to shift.
Now, social norms are unspoken but very powerful shared beliefs. They’re like society’s subconscious mind. For example, the belief that it’s normal to burn fossil fuels. Sure, it’s destroying our planet – but it’s a normal thing to do. Everyone’s doing it.
Social norms are like the water surrounding a fish. We swim in them, every moment. They create society, they shape its systems and its power structures, but most of the time, we don’t even notice them. They are partly responsible for climate and ecological breakdown, as well as humanity’s breathtaking lack of response. How much we can still save will be largely determined by how quickly we can shift these norms.
Now, as the years ticked by, I grew ever more alarmed and frustrated about climate inaction. By 2010, burning fossil fuels had become deeply upsetting to me. The connection between fossil fuels and worsening climate impacts was just too clear. So I started reducing my emissions systematically, scientifically, starting with the biggest things first: giving up air travel, biking instead of driving, and slashing my energy use at home, among many other changes. This taught me three valuable lessons. First, for me it was fun to live with less fossil fuel. It engaged my curiosity, led me to new hobbies and caused me to make new friends. Second, I experienced how we all rely on vast impersonal systems for all of our daily needs – food, water, clothes, streets – everything. To be able to get to zero fossil fuel use, all those systems are going to have to change. And third, very few people were actually willing to follow me in these sorts of changes.
When I started, I hoped my actions would inspire other people. But I’d say roughly maybe one out of a hundred people are willing to systematically reduce their emissions. So, while I think it’s a great thing to do, it simply isn’t enough on its own.
By 2012, I’d become so alarmed that I couldn’t focus on astrophysics any longer, so I switched into climate science. I also started speaking out as much as I could. I was told that scientists aren’t supposed to speak out, but I did it anyway. How could I not speak out, seeing what I see, and knowing what I know?
We need to help each other wake up, and quickly. We need a billion climate activists. We need to build a global climate movement that’s even stronger than the fossil fuel industry. We need a huge number of engaged, passionate, courageous climate activists. We need to come together, with courage, conviction, and creativity, to stop the meteor that’s hurtling toward us. No one is safe from global heating. There is no hiding from it on this tiny, connected, pale blue dot of a planet. The only safety will come from stopping it, and doing this will require deep changes in how humanity organizes as a society, and how we live upon this Earth.
Climate work will be humanity’s main task for the rest of this century: healing the Earth, restoring wild places, adapting to new disasters, and figuring out how to live side by side with each other and all the other species here, who have just as much of a right to be on this planet as we do. There’s infrastructure to build, technologies to invent. There are new legal and moral and even spiritual frameworks to come up with. There is new art to make, new economics to devise, and new stories to tell. We need institutions to devise new disciplines and new ways of thinking, rapidly reduce their emissions, educate the public, and create social change. AKU is already playing a hugely important role in the Global South and must keep going.
We also need you, the graduates of the Aga Khan University – among the best and the brightest the world has to offer – to devote your lives to solving the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. Contribute to global knowledge and innovation. Demand climate justice. Have the courage to cause good trouble. Be the voice for the voiceless, for all the species that are going extinct and for future generations.
Climate disasters will get worse before they get better. But we could stop all of this, if we would make the collective choice to treat climate breakdown as an emergency. Imagine in the future that we’ve turned this corner, that the living Earth is in the process of healing, that our species was on the brink of destruction but came to its senses at the last moment. I foresee that this will bring a tremendous feeling of global solidarity, of cosmic solidarity with life in the universe. My dream is that I will live to experience a time when we are finally on the right path, toward a more mature humanity, a kinder and more grateful humanity, full of joy simply to be here, on this Earth – one strand in the tapestry of life.
I know that a much better world is possible. No law of physics prevents it. It’s up to us. It’s the journey of a lifetime, and it beckons to each and every one of you. Go out there and do it.