Environment & energy, Government and governance, Education | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

5 February 2020

Australia’s bushfires are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change, writes Brian Schmidt. Here’s how unis can act.

In recent months our country has been ravaged by fires of a scale previously unimaginable: towns destroyed, cities choked in smoke, an unrelenting three months of fear, destruction, sadness, and now anger — it has poisoned our summer.

The toll of these fires is terrible. They have seen at least 30 people killed, more than 2600 homes lost, more than 10 million hectares of land burned, and ecological destruction that has killed countless animals and will put many species at risk of extinction. The landscape in some places will be forever changed.

Colleagues at ANU – including Professor Mark Howden who leads our Climate Change Institute and is member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – predicted a decade ago what climate change looks like. It looks like what we have seen this year.

Our bushfires this year are the canary in the coal mine for the world to see, but they are not the only impact of climate change we’re experiencing.

Last year was the hottest on record and the driest on record- our agriculture production is way down. The iconic Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia has had its long-term health downgraded due to the effects of rising sea temperatures causing mass coral bleaching. And the effects of ocean acidification have even started to set in.

More on this: Making an impact

In 2019, Australia’s average temperature last year was 1.5 degrees Celsius above the Bureau of Meteorology’s 1961-1990 baseline. It effectively means Australia’s average temperature last year was 1.9 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

In 2015, through the Paris Agreement, the world came together to chart a way forward to limit global warming to between 1.5 and two degrees. But we are nowhere near being on target to limit warming to two degrees, either as a world or as a nation.

Since the Paris Agreement, CO2 has increased by an amount in our atmosphere higher than in any other four-year period in human history.

We – the global citizenry – are seeing a comprehensive failure of the global political system; a failure that has existential consequences for our collective prosperity. The university sector, in my opinion, will be amongst the most critical of all institutions if we are to find the pathways to a prosperous and sustainable global future.

We will educate those – young and old – who will be productive in a rapidly changing world.

We will undertake much of the research that underpins the technological development required to cope with our demands on the planet.

We will be the place where much of the thinking emerges on how to marry technology with human behaviour.

And we will be the places most open to contemplating whatever changes to the world-order are going to be required to keep the peace as change occurs.

It has been the role of universities for almost a millennium to challenge orthodoxy and think big. Facing up to the challenges isn’t something we, the university sector, can wait for permission to do – our job is to get out in front of issues and find answers before the calls for help.

More on this: Collaborate or perish

The opportunity to help steer my University to take on the challenges facing society was the key motivation for me to leave my very comfortable and largely uncomplicated lifestyle as a Nobel Laureate, to become Vice-Chancellor. And as Vice-Chancellor of Australia’s national university, I am proud that my institution is taking a leading role as part of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate.

One of the great barriers to progress has been the re-emergence of geopolitical uncertainty. But we, as universities are used to working across boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge.

I commend Tsinghua University and the London School of Economics for having the initiative to create the global alliance which includes partners from six continents. We are working across the barriers where politics is struggling to operate effectively to tackle all aspects of the Climate Change challenge. And as a global collective, we are looking at solutions. For example, technology to lower the cost of Greenhouse gas-free energy, and to store it so it can be relied on 24/7, 365 days per year.

Creating green steel, green aluminium, and developing processes to efficiently recycle everything from plastics to steel.

Developing agri-tech to make food cheap and sustainable, and creating new templates for cities to be vibrant and help deliver a zero-greenhouse-gas future.

We are designing new paradigms in transport systems, electricity grids, and looking at ways to pull CO2 out of the air – both through re-forestation but also through large scale industrial processes.

But it is not just technology that matters – all of this has to be underpinned by a highly rational set of policies at the local, national, and international level, as well as things like financial instruments, and public education.

We need to help design the policies that governments can turn to. We stand ready to lend our deep expertise to governments as they act to tackle this enormously complex challenge – ensuring that these do not leave individuals and nations behind. Because if they do, they either will not happen, or will create civil unrest that will undermine their implementation. And we are going to have to adapt; our past actions have already put in motion changes to the earth’s climate.

We need to ask how we mitigate against bushfires and repair the damage done, manage sea-level rise without mass migrations or conflict, stop desertification, avoid water shortages, and cope with shifting weather patterns in our agriculture production. We need to create public health responses to new health issues and disease pressures and manage everything from insurance to new building codes to deal with increasingly extreme weather events.

Each of these questions requires thinking ahead – understanding the future and designing solutions before they become catastrophic. This is the strength of universities.

For 20 years, we have had science and consensus on our side. It gives us no satisfaction in being proved right. The time to act is now.

But we must act intelligently – we cannot afford to do things that sound good, but actually don’t do good.

We must use knowledge to empower our decision-making and chart a course of real change.

We universities know we cannot do this alone, and so we will be looking for partners along the way – from NGOs, business and government. We will be pragmatic, we will be action-oriented, and we will be a catalyst for change.

We know the problems of climate change are tractable – but we do need to act, act consistently, act coherently, and act quickly. It will not fix itself.

More on this: Should Australia declare a climate emergency?

Along the way, we can create energy in a way that is cheaper and more accessible than ever before, bringing a whole new level of prosperity that is more inclusive and far-reaching, and bringing sustainability to the human enterprise.

Currently, 7.7 billion of us live on a planet with a radius of 6378km – a small size that I regularly circumnavigate when I travel from Australia.

I think almost everyone here subscribes to the notion that humanity is in a battle to live sustainably on this small planet – we are not even a speck in the vast Universe I study. But for the foreseeable future, it is the only planet we are going to have.

Let me acknowledge that I have contributed about 2.5 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere travelling to Davos. And while I will offset this emission, I can only justify the emission if the returns to sustainability for my trip are orders of magnitude higher than this figure. I have confidence, from what I have learned here in my discussions with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate, that we can make a huge difference.

But talk is cheap. I look forward to being held to account.

Professor Brian Schmidt AC is Vice-Chancellor and President of The Australian National University.  

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