Universities are ready to work with government and business on climate

Professor Attila Brungs writes that universities are a rich source of expertise and solutions in the fight against the existential threat of climate change. Universities are ready, willing and able to partner with policy and business leaders to ensure a sustainable future. This article was first published in The Australian.

Australians just voted in our ‘climate election’. The new federal government has a clear mandate to act. Governments at all levels, industry, the community and the media also have vital roles to play.

Public universities, which exist solely for the public good, have a unique part to play in Australia’s climate action plan as a rich source of knowledge, innovative solutions and technology but also critical know-how, and experts who walk on two legs – that is, wonderful people.

At UNSW alone, our people have pioneered renewable solar and hydrogen energy production and storage. Others have devoted their careers to understanding every facet of our environment, water and food security, sustainable building and recycling, and the Indigenous cultural burning that can help us manage the threat of bushfires. The relevant expertise to tackle this challenge also transcends traditional research boundaries, requiring the sciences, humanities, engineering, and the social sciences.

Our university is also a founding member of the International Universities Climate Alliance, a collaborative endeavour with 50 member institutions supporting government leaders in developing climate policy on a global scale.

The expertise in climate change science and related subjects held within even this one university is profound. Its application is proven, its potential immense. And with Australia ranking third in the world for the number of universities in the top 200 globally, the depth and breadth of knowledge across the sector is immeasurable.

The reliance on expert advice during the pandemic was a welcome departure from the disinformation and misinformation that is the hallmark of the anti-intellectual era in which we find ourselves.

When the media sought to help the community understand why their lives had been turned upside-down, epidemiologists, virologists and public health researchers came into homes across the country daily, via radio, TV and newspapers. UNSW experts like Raina MacIntyre and Mary-Louise McLaws became household names as they were asked to make sense of the new environment of masks, social distancing and hand hygiene.

A vaccine was seen as our only way of bringing this public health crisis under control, just as had happened with polio, diphtheria, smallpox and a host of diseases which have been all but consigned to history. The words ‘impossible’ and ‘fantastical’ were among the milder rebukes to those who believed it could be achieved in anything under 10 years.

But it was.

Joël Mesot, physicist and President of ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, recently observed that biochemists – some who had devoted their careers to working on messenger RNA technology – found themselves in a race to “save humanity.” “Where previously they had struggled to obtain research grants, a flash flood of funding and a singular global focus led to the development of a viable vaccine” in record time.

Humankind looked to academics, experts, and scientists for help. Governments had the need to protect the health of their citizens and reopen their economies. Researchers had the answers. A way was found.

Science saved us then and can save us again from the most extreme outcomes of climate change.

The question is, why did we place our trust in expertise and “the science” during the pandemic but still, far too often, we afford opinion and hearsay the same status as fact on climate change?

For those of us in the higher education and research sector, our very existence is founded upon pursuit of facts. Facts that prove or disprove or percolate a theory. And which are based on sound evidence.

We ask our peers to review our work to ensure the integrity of our thinking and methodology. We invite robust debate to test the strength of our assumptions. Importantly, if we are wrong, we admit it.

That is the established, reliable evidence-based process that gave us an mRNA vaccine and it is that same, well-hewn process that allowed us to understand the complexities of climate change.

We can no longer entertain opinions on climate change at the expense of the evidence. It is here and it has progressed at the high end of what modellers predicted.

Researchers have evidence that the Antarctic ice sheet may have reached a tipping point. They show us how the global water cycle has been affected by rising temperatures, making the wet areas of the planet wetter and the dry parts drier, and warn of its likely critical impact on infrastructure, agriculture and biodiversity.

More and more we hear of ‘unprecedented’ floods or bushfires, or of heatwaves with temperatures nearing levels at which human life becomes unsustainable.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have a "brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future".

The decades of knowledge held in our universities are society’s greatest asset in fighting this existential threat. We are ready, willing and able to partner with policy and business leaders to help wrest back control of our climate’s trajectory.

Expertise can save us. But it is up to us to let it.