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To solve big, hard problems you need both excitement and outrage

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People take part in a climate strike in Montreal on Sept. 23, organized by Fridays for Future.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Ken Dryden is an author and former NHL goaltender who served as an MP from 2004 until 2011, and as a cabinet minister. The following is adapted from the inaugural lecture he delivered at McGill University on Sept. 12, for its new course Climate Crisis and Climate Action, which he helped create and design.

I’m asked to speak about the past a lot, but I find the future far more interesting, far more exciting. And when I think about the future, I think about your generation. You’ll live another 60 or more years. What will those years be like? In what kind of Canada, in what kind of world, on what kind of planet, do you want to live? And how will you get there? As parents and grandparents, what we want most is to know that our kids and grandkids, that you and your generation, will be okay. And if we can’t know that, what can we do now to help?

In my life, I’ve been involved in lots of big questions, from environmental pollution, to inequality, to education. I think climate change is the biggest one.

You’ll need to find answers to it. Whether you become a medical doctor, a sales rep or an elementary school teacher, in a big city or remote village, in Quebec or British Columbia, in Canada or anywhere in the world, climate change will be a central part of your life. Once it seemed to be about ice caps melting, about places far distant. But big fires, droughts, famines and floods, big disruptions with big consequences are inching closer to us all. It’s not somebody else’s problem any more. Not somebody else’s answer to find.

You’re at a great stage in your life to begin finding it. Some of you are living away from home for the first time, starting a new life for yourselves, making your own choices, discovering new interests, setting new directions, your future and the future ever more in your minds. You have serious thoughts, and want to be taken seriously. You want to connect, and feel connected, to the world around you. You want to feel relevant and purposeful. You want to learn about problems, and about solutions because, as you’re coming to learn, one without the other isn’t an answer at all.

Climate change is starting to seem very personal to you. And it should. It is about the future, and the future belongs to you in a way it doesn’t to me, or to your professors or teachers, or your parents, or to government or industry decision makers, because you have more skin in this game than we do because you will live longer. And you, we, all of us, won’t find a solution unless you, we, all of us, make it personal. Because I’ve found it’s only when something is deeply personal that we find the commitment and energy we need to accomplish it.

You know a lot about climate change already, but you will need to learn a lot more. About the effects it has on the land and sky, on plants and forests, animals, humans, on your future, and your life. You must remember what is at stake.

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A family walk along the boardwalk at Oka provincial park in Quebec.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

I’d like for each of you to begin your learning with a long, slow, wonder-filled walk through nature. Go to the nearest park, to a river or lake, just to see the incredible amazing-ness of nature. Keep that amazing-ness always in your head. My own “walk through nature” came from seeing whales for the first time. How impossibly big they are, to see them suddenly breach, come right out of the water, be up in the air, then roll and crash and smash down. It was coming upon giraffes in a game park, everything about them too tall, too skinny, too impossibly-shaped – there’s no way such a thing should ever exist, yet there it was. It was seeing a hummingbird, just a speck of a thing, whirring, darting, at the feeder, then poof – gone. It was seeing a leafcutter ant on a jungle floor in Ecuador, and then another, and another, all in a straight line, every one of them carrying a tiny jagged green square, a part of a leaf, held upright like a sail, an uncountable number of them. It was watching a David Attenborough special on TV, seeing creatures I’d never seen before that made me stop, and think, and wonder. Because really, this is the essence of fighting climate change. To see, and to truly appreciate, what might be lost. To know these are the stakes.

Read Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. He writes about the Big Bang, about how we got from there, billions of years ago, to here. A journey that has to do with x’s and y’s and square roots and things I don’t understand. That a long time ago there was a very big explosion that sent tiny particles into space, and after a lot of bumping and colliding, certain things came together in certain forms, and then in other forms, and others, until finally, after a really, really long time, came together as a whale, or a giraffe, or an ant, or us.

I tell you about Mr. Bryson because it’s the incredible, impossible amazing-ness he writes about that somehow has become the incredible, impossible amazing-ness of whales and giraffes and us. We’re around only on this planet for 80 or 90 years, but we’ve been part of this incredible story for billions of years, and will be for billions more. Hopefully.

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A humpback whale rises out of the Pacific off Colombia's coast in 2018. The giant creatures, which can weigh up to 36 tonnes, are endangered, though environmental laws have allowed them to bounce back somewhat after 19th- and 20th-century whaling brought their population to critical lows.MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest question for you and your generation to answer: What relationship will you have to all this life around you? To life itself? To existence itself? You’re going to have to decide. This planet survived the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, but we as human beings have become the Earth’s new asteroids, determining at an ever-accelerating rate what lives and what dies. My generation and those us before us didn’t set out to kill off Tasmanian tigers or passenger pigeons. So how do you keep from doing what we have done?

I think my generation and others before us had the wrong relationship with the planet. We didn’t know the story that Mr. Bryson tells. We grew up with other creation stories. The creation story I grew up with came from the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and gave man “dominion” over it all, “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” I think it was at this moment, when the relationship between humans and the natural world was set, that things began to go wrong.

Having “dominion” suggests that if something can’t be resolved, it’s our call. That every living thing, every animal, every plant, was created for us, for our use and our purposes. But then what happens when our numbers and appetites grow, and our interests and their interests aren’t the same?

I think there’s a direct line between the Bible’s creation story and climate change. Between the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the relationship between us and every other living thing around us. The Bible puts us at the centre of existence. No matter how much everything else on Earth matters, we matter more. We can do whatever we want. And in the past few hundred years, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

The story Mr. Bryson tells and the Bible doesn’t tell is that existence isn’t all about us as human beings. Two hundred years ago there were only about a billion of us, now there’s almost eight billion. We as human beings have done a pretty good job making a lot more human beings a lot better off. We live longer, are healthier, better educated and have more things. We’ve done the job the Bible gave us. We’ve gone forth and multiplied, we’ve exercised our dominion. And we’ve gotten it wrong. The Bible got it wrong. The planet, it turns out, doesn’t work this way. We’ve had the wrong relationship with other living things.

One thing is certain. You, we, must not give up the fight. I’ve seen decision makers give up on other big complicated questions. First, they say they don’t know about the problem, then they deny it exists, then they say it isn’t as bad as some believe it is, and finally there’s nothing we can do, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a well-meaning fool. I’ve seen decision makers also give up in a different way, by focusing in a direction that’s no direction at all. Some very rich people talk excitedly about the possibilities of Mars, as if Mars can be our “backup” plan. The Earth is a lost cause, they reason, so let’s develop the technology to get us from here to a species-saving there. We put a man on the moon in less than a decade. Don’t you believe in human ingenuity? Now, I’m no engineering or logistics expert, but I’m pretty sure this won’t work. Unless this “answer” is intended only for the very few.

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Giraffes in Tanzania in 2018.Baz Ratner/Reuters

The fact that life on Earth exists at all is a miracle on top of a miracle on top of a miracle. Maybe there is life in lots of other places, probably there is, but as far as we know those atoms came together as whales and giraffes and us, once. We’re it. And as human beings who share this life on Earth, does that not mean we might have a bit of a responsibility? Is not part of human life us living in the midst of whales and giraffes? Is human life human life without them?

Here’s something else to keep in mind. It’s about science and how decisions get made. We know a lot about climate change, and are on the way to knowing a lot more. But science doesn’t know things once and forever. That’s not how science works. Once the world was flat, and then it wasn’t. Science “knows” the best that anyone can know at a particular moment, and what that is is a placeholder for what we’ll come to know next, which in turn will become a placeholder, too. The point is that science, and you, need to keep on learning. And for your generation to survive climate change, you will need to know a lot more than we do today. But knowing is not enough. Awareness is not the objective, though sometimes we forget that. You, all of us, believe that if there’s a problem our decision makers in government and business will act on it and do what needs to be done, because why wouldn’t they? That when awareness reaches a certain level it’s almost the same as decision-making itself. The rest just follows. And if it doesn’t, it can only be because there’s not enough awareness, and we need more studies. Yet that’s not it.

In 2006, not long after you were born, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore made a documentary movie called An Inconvenient Truth. Mr. Gore is not the most charismatic person, and what was on the screen wasn’t much more than a high-end PowerPoint presentation with great visuals. Yet the movie was a sensation, and won an Academy Award for best documentary. The movie didn’t say much more than what had been said for years, but there the story was, right up on a big screen in front of millions of people who were experiencing it together. Until that moment, if decision makers and the public had somehow not been aware of the effects of climate change, no more.

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Al Gore in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.AP/Paramount Classics

So, of course, with this reality now clear, we all knew that the necessary actions would be taken. And, of course, as you’ve seen through your life, they weren’t.

In 2017, Mr. Gore came back with another movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. It was not a sensation. It offered an update on the effects of climate change, and what had happened to the Earth in the 11 years since the first movie, but that wasn’t what the public was looking for. Or needed. The public now was aware. The 2006 movie had done its job. What the public needed was to see how our new awareness had translated into action, to see what had been done by governments, corporations and individuals around the world. To see what had worked and what hadn’t, to know better what needed to be done and what degree of commitment was now required, at this moment, and in the future. The public didn’t want a report card on the planet, it wanted a report card on us. It wanted gold stars, not to wallow in our own failure, to feel excited, to want to take the next big steps. Instead, the movie took us back to the forever default position of every decision makers: learn more, to pretend we’re doing more. The ice caps weren’t fooled.

So again, if we know all this, why aren’t we doing better? I think the biggest obstacle is that our decision makers hope that climate change really isn’t that big a problem. Because it’s a tough one to solve. Because people live in different circumstances, have different needs and priorities, and see the world in different ways. Because our decision makers can’t see the common ground that all great tasks, and all great missions, require. I’m actually not sure our decision makers truly believe we can do it, or, when the consequences of doing it become clear, if we want to. Governing is hard. You have to deal with lots of things you don’t know much about, and offer little bits of answers to each of them. Governing requires trade-offs, compromises, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, always reminding yourself that politics is “the art of the possible.” Yet sometimes, it seems, the possible isn’t enough. Compromise isn’t enough. Temperatures reach a certain level and the ice caps melt. Ice caps don’t compromise. Climate change is this giant, incredibly consequential game of chicken. Except with climate change, you can’t psych out the other side.

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Blankets protect snow from the previous winter at the Tsanfleuron pass in Switzerland this past September. The mountain pass has had a layer of ice since at least the ancient Roman era, but after a dry winter and summer heatwaves, it has melted all but completely.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

We will need to find a new possible. I’ve said these words a thousand times, and I’m sure you have too: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the words are true. But sometimes the mountain in front of us is really high, and the more accurate saying is the reverse: “Where there’s a way, there’s a will.” I think most of our decision makers and many of us can’t see a way to do what needs to be done because the scientific, technological, economic and political mountain seems so high. So – no way, no will. Many argue that the problem is the inertia of the system. Big systems move slowly, especially when it comes to big problems. The challenge for you and your generation will be to demonstrate to yourselves and to future decision makers that scientifically, technologically, economically and politically there is a way. To focus on the answer, not the problem. On what works. To give future prime ministers and presidents enough of the way that they, and you, have the will to take on the fight.

One thing that I hope is clear to you now, and which will become even clearer, is: You cannot do this alone. It’s like with COVID-19. We mask up, keep our distance, get our shots and boosters, do everything right, but if the other eight billion people on the planet don’t, we’re going to get sick, lots of us will end up in a hospital, require treatment from a nurse or doctor, take up a bed, take up a ventilator. With some big problems, and climate change and pandemics are two of them, we have learned that we’re not okay if the other person isn’t okay. And that person isn’t okay if we’re not okay.

But, as you also know, if we do things together sometimes pretty amazing stuff can happen. Again, consider COVID. All of us know that we could’ve done a lot better during the pandemic than we did. Sometimes we were lazy, whiny, selfish, feeling too sorry for ourselves, even giving our weakness a name – “COVID fatigue.” Yet, imagine before COVID someone had said to you, “Oh, about school this year, you’re going to have to take all your classes at home, remotely, every day, and have no in-person time with your teachers, no times in the hallways with your friends, no teams or bands or activities of any kind to join.” You would’ve said, “No way. It’s just not possible. I can’t do it.” And if somehow you thought you could, you would’ve said there’s no way Ben or Ayeesha or any friend you could name could do it, so what is the point? And, when the next year began, someone else had said the same because the pandemic was still around, you would’ve said, “No. Way. Period.”

Yet, miracle of miracles, you, Ben, Ayeesha and billions of others have mostly found a way to survive this. New technologies got created, we adapted. We also came to see that maybe the world can function a different way, and maybe we can unthink, unlearn and unknow some things, and think and learn and know some others. Maybe we haven’t done as well with COVID as we should have, but what we’ve done is pretty remarkable. And maybe, actually, these past few years have been a good dress rehearsal to prepare you, and us, for the climate change fight ahead.

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'We are skipping our lessons to teach you one!' reads a sign at a Sept. 23 climate protest in Ottawa.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

But at this moment you might also say, “Let’s get realistic. I’m a student. Really, what can I do?” Here’s what I’d say to you: When I was a Member of Parliament I would tell others that young people are important in politics because they are still young enough to be excited by the exciting, and to be outraged by the outrageous. And to solve big, hard problems you need both, excitement and outrage.

Don’t underestimate your power. Your excited, outraged, deeply personal voice makes us squirm. We know you’re right. We, the older generation, have a responsibility to pass on to you every life possibility. You’re the boss, not us. My generation reports to you. If things aren’t as they need to be, you call us to account. So push us, get on us. You have every right. Don’t ever forget that. And remember, 30 years from now your kids will hold you to account.

The fun thing about learning is that you have no idea where it’s going to take you. What impact it will have. Into what fields of study and work you’ll go. Almost every one of them is, and will be, affected by climate change. Engineering, law, every economist, sociologist, psychologist will need to understand, and have an answer for, the effects of climate change. So, too, those in business. The answer to climate change isn’t just to shut down the fossil fuel economy. It’s to create opportunities for the next economy. To put the brakes on one, and to put the pedal to the metal on another. The challenges of climate change and its challenges are made for business schools, for the next generation of great entrepreneurs. When I was in university, the best and the brightest students wanted to be lawyers; for years after that, investment bankers. What about the best and the brightest students of your generation?

As I said at the beginning, you have 60 or 70 more years ahead of you. This is your life. What I hope for you is a lot of things, but as a beginning, I hope deep, deep down you understand, you appreciate, just what an amazing, incredible something we are all a part of. I think if you start from here, in all those years ahead you’ll get to the there you need. Stop, think, wonder. A tree, a bird, a lake. Understand the stakes. Fuel your will. Find your way. Go to it.

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