Remarks at the launch of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes

Thank you, Professor Johnston. I too acknowledge the Bedegal people on whose land we meet this afternoon. I’d also like to welcome the Honourable Craig Laundy MP, representing the Australian Government; and Professor Sue Thomas from the Australian Research Council.

It gives me great pleasure see this new Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes come to life. In Australia, we know only too well the dangers of climate extremes. The bushfires that destroyed 70 homes in Tathra, on a day of record-breaking heat, were a recent, stark reminder.

Extreme weather in this country has a debilitating economic effect on our primary industries – from flooding or cyclones to extended dry spells. Then there’s the pressure placed on our cities, and the people in them. Climate extremes cost Australia up to $4 billion a year.

This Centre of Excellence will improve our capacity to predict these extremes – so our people and our economy will be better equipped to face them in the future. This is one of three Centres of Excellence awarded to UNSW under the 2017ARC funding round. A superb result.

And the fact we were the only university to receive such support tells me a couple of things about research, generally, at UNSW. It tells me that the ARC has enormous and growing respect for the quality of the research we do here.

And it tells me that fostering meaningful relationships—across disciplines and between research institutes—is rapidly becoming one of our greatest strengths. There are few areas in more urgent need of our collaborative expertise than climate change.

Scientia Professor Matthew England puts it best when he describes climate change as ‘one of the most unfair environmental crises imaginable.’ It is a moral challenge, just as it is a scientific one. The most affected, of course, will be those both least responsible and least equipped to cope.

Those of you working at this Centre will not only contribute to helping those affected by climate extremes but will embody UNSW’s core objective: to engage in work that matters. Work that has a positive global impact – making our society safer, more just, and more equitable.

I’m proud that this Centre is the first of its kind in the world; the first dedicated specifically to the understanding of climate extremes. It speaks of UNSW’s strong climate science credentials.

In the sustainable cities area, for example, UNSW researchers have designed state-of-the-art materials and systems which can mitigate urban overheating by up to 4 degrees. That means their strategies have the potential to:

• decrease the total energy consumption for cooling up to 40% across the whole of Western Sydney
• reduce peak electricity demand up to 5%, and
• reduce heat-related mortality and morbidity by up to 30%.

Climate change was one of our university’s first four Grand Challenges, positioning us as thought leaders in this field.

The work you undertake in this Centre – alongside some of the world’s leading institutions in climate research and with partner universities here at home – will only see our reputation grow. And your partnerships with the Managing Climate Variability R&D Program and with Risk Frontiers will make sure that your research is translated in practical ways.

I cannot stress enough how important this is. There is a significant gap in Australia’s discovery-to-commercialisation research pipeline at the translation phase. It is not allowing us to realise the full potential of our world-leading research. And the answer lies in greater industry-university collaboration.

It is the reason I have recently advocated for changes to research funding, so we can incentivise industry and universities to work together. While a future fund for translation of research – to complement the work of the ARC – would push us towards industry. An R&D tax incentive collaboration premium for industries which work with universities would pull them towards us.

It is a solution that I personally believe would have enormous, positive consequences for the prosperity and wellbeing of Australian and in, some cases, the world.

The work done at the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes will be proof of that global impact of research. You will make a vital contribution to the understanding of the broader issues of extreme weather – food security, rising sea levels, the movement of people across the world.

I congratulate everyone involved in establishing this vital Centre of Excellence and I look forward to watching the Centre’s success.

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