South Royalton — In an upbeat speech one graduate admiringly called “kind of firebrand,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy urged the Vermont Law School Class of 2016 to hew to the mission that drove them to the school in the first place, and use their training to ensure business as usual “doesn’t remain business as usual.”
“You came here to make the world more just,” said McCarthy, who at yesterday’s graduation ceremony challenged the class to tackle tough issues, such as climate change, which “affects us all.”
The graduates will play a vital role in keeping the planet safe and keeping “my kids’ future and my grandchildren’s future stable and happy,” she said.
“I’m so excited to be able hand over the world to this generation of leaders.”
That hope, and focus on mission, pervaded the ceremony, held yesterday morning on the green, where school officials conferred 128 law degrees and 114 master’s degrees. The law school was recently recognized as first in the nation for environmental law on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings for the Best Law Schools for 2017, the 18th time it’s held that honor in the past 26 years, according to the VLS website.
Addressing the graduates, the law school’s President and Dean Marc Mihaly focused on something he suspected many of them had experienced during the past few years — anxiety about whether they would succeed.
Mihaly reassured them that he and the faculty knew they would, and then recounted various anxiety dreams he’s had throughout his career, usually variations on arriving unprepared for an exam or a trial.
Over time, he’s realized that anxiety is not reality, but an emotion that, if heeded, “will have served you well,” ensuring that you are prepared, he told the crowd seated in an airy, high-ceilinged tent. “It will have inoculated you against failure.”
In closing, he wished the graduates “great waking dreams,” dreams for a purpose-driven life in which they “make the world more sustainable and more just.” Introducing McCarthy, VLS Board President Christopher Dutton said history had thrust upon her the role of EPA administrator, and he lauded McCarthy’s courage, constancy and sophistication in addressing global climate change, “the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.”
Against great odds, “she’s succeeded in erecting the nation’s strongest regulatory climate regime,” Dutton said.
In a testament to the “unfortunate politicization of the climate issue,” McCarthy’s nomination by President Obama was confirmed only after a record 136-day confirmation fight.
During McCarthy’s tenure the EPA has tightened fuel efficiency and emissions standards for cars and taken steps to regulate power plant emissions of greenhouse gases and limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
In her energetic speech, McCarthy admitted she’d never really liked lawyers until recently, and riffing on Mihaly’s topic, said her anxiety dream would be “filled with lawyers,” prompting bursts of laughter from the crowd.
“And I am in Washington living that dream today,” said McCarthy, who also paid tribute to her “boss,” who was once a constitutional law professor, but “has not been boring.”
“He’s done damn well for himself, and for us,” she said, and ticked off a list of changes made under Obama’s lead.
For the first time, more than nine out of 10 Americans have health care, she said. Today, anyone in America “can marry whomever the hell they want to marry,” and the country is less reliant on foreign oil than it’s been in nearly three decades.
President Obama is “as mission-driven as you are,” and unwilling to accept business as usual, she said.
McCarthy encouraged the graduates to work in public service, which can offer a rich life, if not an enormous paycheck. Of about 1,000 attorneys at the EPA, 69 are Vermont Law School graduates, said McCarthy, who received an honorary degree from the school yesterday.
Democracy moves slowly, but it does move, she assured them. “It’s built, layer by layer, action by action.”
“Sometimes it feels like David and Goliath,” said McCarthy, referring to the agency’s Clean Power Plan, which is being challenged in federal appeals court. The list of attorneys representing the plaintiffs is 22 pages long, “but we’re going to win, because we always do when it’s important.”
Optimistic throughout her speech, McCarthy highlighted the current generation’s technological know-how and global awareness and told the class they were graduating at a time of “incredible innovation and progress.”
She described her recent visit to Tesla Motors’ factory and said the company has received 700,000 orders for its latest car, which would triple the number of electric vehicles on roads in the United States.
She also cited the recent Paris climate change agreement, and said that, in 2015, global investments in renewable energy hit a record $286 billion, more twice what was invested worldwide in fossil fuels.
And the federal government of the United States is finally “leading this charge,” both domestically and internationally, she said.
McCarthy received a standing ovation, as did class speaker Jordan Carpenter, who thanked the town of South Royalton for hosting the class and credited the law school’s professors for “turning passionate activists into skilled advocates.”
Carpenter paraphrased a sermon by John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, about making a difference in the world, and offered his own advice.
The world desperately needs people who are “gripped by the notion” that they can have a positive impact in their homes and communities, he said, and asked his classmates to be gripped by the idea that they have a responsibility to use the law “for our community and for our world.”
After the two-hour long ceremony, students relaxing with family and friends at a reception on the college grounds said they were inspired by what they’d heard.
Catherine Omokaro, who received a master of laws in energy law, gained a new perspective on anxiety. “I see the positive side,” said Omokaro, who will return to her home in Lagos, Nigeria, to work in her family’s property law practice.
Alexandra Van Baars, who hopes to practice environmental law, said McCarthy’s talk was a good reminder to stay the course.
“It could be easy to get sidetracked with jobs that pay a little bit more,” said the Cape Cod resident, who received a law degree.
Arnell Limberry, who also received his law degree, called McCarthy an advocate for “firm and consistent environmental protection” and said her speech could have come from Obama.
McCarthy’s call to public service was the “most salient” point in her talk, particularly at a school where the students are well-prepared for such work, he said.
Originally from Maryland, Limberry hopes to work in public service, promoting access to energy efficiency programs, such as solar initiatives, for low-income people.
Robert Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, and Linda Greer, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, also received honorary degrees during yesterday’s ceremony.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.