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The Honourable John Ferguson Godfrey’s Convocation Address

The Honourable John Ferguson Godfrey's Convocation Address

Twenty-nine years ago, from this very place, I gave an address when I was installed as President of King’s. By that point I had already been a Don of residence, (Chapel Bay, of course) for six years. My fellow graduates this afternoon, obtaining their degrees after a mere three or four years, or, in some cases for Journalism students, a trifling one year, must wonder about what sort of slow learner I must be to take 35 years for my first degree from King’s!

Mind you, I was supposed to receive this degree last year on 19 May 2005. You may recall that was the day when the Government -of which I was a Minister–won a vote of confidence by one vote, with the help of me, Belinda Stronach, an independent member of Parliament, the late Chuck Cadman, and the Speaker casting the deciding vote. Can you imagine what my place in Canadian history would have been if I had decided to come for my degree rather than staying and voting?!

So thank you, King’s, for offering me the degree again. I also want to pay a special tribute to three outstanding King’s people.

The first is George Bain, the great Canadian journalist who died on Sunday and whose funeral is being held today in Mahone Bay. I was President when we hired George Bain as the second director of our new School of Journalism. George came in at a very difficult time for the School, and during his tenure as Director, really put King’s Journalism on the map. Farewell George.

The second is Margo Pullen Sly, whom I hired as my assistant when I was President and who efficiently ran the college, me, and three successive presidents without the outside world being any the wiser. Margo is now retiring, leaving poor President Barker on his own.  Thank you, Margo, for all you have done for me, my successors, and King’s.

My third tribute is to a former student of mine at King’s, Captain Trevor Greene, who is recovering from a grievous axe wound to the head, inflicted while on duty with Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. Trevor typifies what is best about King’s and its students: intelligent, lively, funny, energetic, loyal, and constantly thinking of the needs of others. Get well, Trevor.

Today, I want to talk to you, the graduates, about the greatest single threat you will face during your lifetimes: climate change and global warming. In a recent review of David Suzuki’s autobiography, I was struck by this haunting sentence: “Around the world, the coral is dying, the hurricanes and cyclones are gathering, the permafrost melting, the great fertile prairie soils turning to salt.” If current rates of warming continue, you will, I fear, witness massive extinctions of species, world-wide food shortages, and the collapse of national economies.

The time for debate is long past. Consider the evidence. In March, it was reported that “sea ice in the Arctic has failed to re-form for the second consecutive winter, raising fears that global warming may have tipped the polar regions into irreversible climate change far sooner than predicted.” The same month, two research papers predicted that unless immediate action is taken to reduce the human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the resulting warming effects, within this century a massive melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and a partial collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet will raise global sea levels by up to six meters, devastating low-lying coastal areas -think of the impact on the Maritimes, let alone Bangladesh, and drowning major cities around the world.  Already, Greenland’s ice sheet is melting more than twice as fast now as it did in 1996.

In Ontario, last spring and summer, there was a record number of smog days, 53, and demand on the electrical system actually exceeded the province’s available generation capacity in 283 hours, compared to only 18 hours in 2004, as it struggled to keep up. This January was the warmest January on record for Ontario.

In British Columbia, the pine beetle is devastating millions of hectares of forests because, with global warming, winters are now too mild to kill off the larvae.

In Alberta, the province is facing a major water crisis as the combination of climate change and the extravagant use of water by the energy industry, agriculture, and municipalities has resulted in the reduction of summer flows on major rivers by 40% to 60% below historic values.

In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Floodway, designed to divert a one-hundred year flood has experienced three one-hundred year floods in the last decade–which is not how 100 year floods are supposed to work. The authorities are now building up the Floodway for a 700 year flood.

Hurricane Katrina reminds us how extreme weather events can be triggered by relatively small increases of temperature, in this case, the surface water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico, where a one-degree warming added enormous power to the hurricanes which devastated the Gulf states.

2005 was one of the hottest years on earth in more than a century. It was also the most expensive on record for natural disasters, with losses of $210 billion world-wide. In the last 25 years, we have registered 19 of the 20 hottest years on record.

So what must we do? What must you do? The answer is obvious: we need to mobilize Canada to fight climate change as massively as we did to fight fascism during World War II. In the end, it all comes down to reducing radically our consumption of fossil fuels. Ironically, we are actually experiencing a double crisis: climate changes and energy shortages, particularly of oil. Think back to the gas price increases of last summer, of this spring.

The solution to both crises is the same: a more energy-efficient society and economy. If we examine every aspect of our lives, we would be astonished at how much energy we are currently wasting. From electrical appliances to houses to automobiles to industrial processes to the way we lay out our cities and towns: the possibilities for improving energy efficiency and reducing pollutants and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating prosperity and enhancing our quality of life, especially in urban Canada, are extraordinary.

We need to create a great national project for sustainable development, understanding that sustainability is not only about the environment but also about the economy, society, and, indeed, about our culture. A society dedicated to sustainability is a society with a clear industrial strategy, based on energy-saving products and processes, and the development of alternative energy sources. It is also a society which thinks purposefully about its future.

I want Canada to become a world leader in sustainable development. I want us to be known as sustainability innovators both at home and in the world.

So graduates, the world you are inheriting is full of risk and peril, none greater than climate change. The decision we must all make is whether we resign ourselves to fate or decide that we will change the course of history by taking action. There is no exact road-map to a more sustainable future, any more than there was to victory when Canada went to war in 1939. But we know the direction, the broad outline of what we must do. We also know that further delay will simply increase the risk of catastrophe and make the task of saving the planet more difficult.

Government clearly has a leadership role here. But so do all of us, graduates, families, and professors. Politicians like me, but especially perhaps, politicians like those currently in government in Ottawa, need to hear from you, the citizens, about the role you expect them to play in the dealing with greatest crisis of our time.

I wish all of you the foresight, the courage and determination to make a better world. After all, it is the only world we have.

Delivered by The Honourable John Ferguson Godfrey (BA ’65, M.Phil ’67, D.Phil ’75, PC, MP) at the 2006 Encaenia Ceremony on May 18, 2006.