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September 2009 Issue
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Climate of change


The last five years have seen the emergence of near-universal consensus that climate change is real, even if there is still some dispute as to its significance and the extent to which climate change is human induced.

I could devote this column to persuading you that climate change is real, or to discussing the impacts it will have on climate in terms of temperature, rainfall redistribution, sea levels and the probable inundation of land (including cities), crop failure and the need to reassess cropping patterns, plant breeding, species extinction, population migration and a raft of social, economic and national security issues.

However, the reality of climate change has been well described, and is detailed at length in the scientific literature such that the vast majority of scientists now accept it. Debate has now, in the main, moved to issues of magnitude, speed, impacts, and the measures we might take in mitigation.

Issues that are intimately, indeed inextricably, linked with climate change include: world population, food preferences, energy demand and water security. These issues alone demonstrate that the consequences of failing to act will be great; the problems for humanity will be massive.

Are we prepared for this? Does the public understand the issues? Do we understand how to reverse, minimise, or even live with the changes that are upon us? Do governments have the policy tools and options needed to make informed judgments? The answer clearly is no.

Universities are uniquely placed among the world's centres of learning and research when it comes to informing public debate. Whatever the problem, universities can, and have, come up with the solutions.

As far as I see it, universities have a dual role in the global response to climate change.

First, through education and research into the nature, extent and causes of climate change, they provide policy makers with the evidence required to institute meaningful mitigation policy and to provide a basis for gauging available adaptation options. Universities, through their education and research into climate change, are making an impact on the world, especially in respect of energy production, food production, and water security.

Secondly, universities must increase their direct community involvement in the promotion of societal change towards long-term sustainability. In their popular book Degrees that Matter. Climate Change and the University, Dr Ann Rappaport and Sarah Hammond Creighton write: "As communities, [universities] can strategize and organize effective action. As laboratories for learning and centers of research, they can reduce their own emissions of greenhouse gases, educate students about global warming, and direct scholarly attention to issues related to climate change and energy."

I agree with their approach, but would extend it by inviting universities to get out into the community and offer their assistance and support, without having to be asked for it. There is an undeniable elitism in many universities that expects the community to come to us, not the other way around.

It is true that there are good reasons to act with caution: few would disagree that an academic culture that demands quick results hampers innovative and long-term research efforts. But a long-term commitment to knowledge is not necessarily inconsistent with a short-term engagement with society, no more than the preservation of tradition is inconsistent with the consideration of new approaches. Universities should not discount the benefits of an active approach.

We cannot be aloof and uncommitted commentators. Are we providing viable solutions and policy options, or simply doing research to confirm we have a problem that current policies will not fix?

Universities pioneered education and research into the science of climate change, and they should be at the forefront of communicating that knowledge to government, industry and the community.

This has been edited from the Vice-Chancellor's plenary address delivered to the 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers Vice-Chancellors' Forum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June.

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Vice-Chancellor and President

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