Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century

Lauren Rickards, RMIT University and Tamson Pietsch, University of Technology Sydney

This essay is based on an episode of the UTS podcast series “The New Social Contract” that examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.

Universities are confronting the possibility of profound sector-wide transformation due to the continuing effects of COVID-19. It is prompting much needed debate about what such transformation should look like and what kind of system is in the public interest.

This is now an urgent conversation. If universities want a say in what the future of higher education will look like, they will need to generate ideas quickly and in a way that attracts wide public support.

This will involve articulating their unique role as embedded, future-regarding, ethical generators of crucial knowledge and skills, well-equipped to handle coming contingencies and helping others do the same.

And this means higher education changes are entangled with another major force for transformation – climate change.

How can universities credibly claim to be preparing young people for their futures, or to be working with employers, if they do not take into account the kind of world they are helping to bring about?

A vital role in a climate changed world

Whether indexed by the continual climb in extreme heat and humidity, the melting of Arctic ice, the eruption of unprecedented mega-fire events or the rapid degradation of ecosystems and disruption of human settlements, climate change is here.

It is rapidly exacerbating environmental and social stress across the globe, as well as directly and indirectly impacting all institutions and areas of life. And worse still, global greenhouse gas concentrations are moving in exactly the opposite direction to what we need, with carbon emissions growing by 2.0% in 2019, the fastest growth for seven years.

Much-needed transitions towards low carbon and well-adapted systems are emerging. But they are too piecemeal and slow relative to what is needed to avoid large scale cascading and compounding impacts to our planet.

Universities, along with all other parts of our society, will feel the effects of climate change. The cost of the devastation at the Australian National University due to the summer’s fires and hailstorm, for instance, is estimated to be A$75 million dollars.

Failure to appropriately adapt to the increasing likelihood of such events threatens to undermine research of all sorts.

Whether due to climate impacts (such as the effects of sea level rise on coastal laboratories) or policy and market shifts away from carbon-intensive activities (such as coal powered energy), research investments face the risk of becoming stranded assets. Not only could expensive infrastructure and equipment be rendered redundant, but certain skills, capabilities and projects could too.

Universities are key to enabling Australian society to transition to a safer and lower emissions pathway. They are needed to provide the knowledge, skills and technologies for this positive transition. And they are also needed to foster the social dialogue and build the broad public mandate to get there.

This means old ideas of universities as isolated and values-free zones, and newer notions of them as cheap consultants to the private sector, fundamentally fail to fulfil the role universities now need to play.

They must become public good, mission-driven organisations devoted to rapidly progressing human understanding and action on the largest threat there has ever been, to what they are taken to represent and advance – human civilisation.

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Universities must become more sustainable…

Inaction will erode the trust on which universities rely, especially among the key constituencies universities are meant to serve – young people and the private, community and public sectors.

Students, businesses, not-for-profit organisations and certain governments are already acting far more forcefully than universities, even as the latter claim to be intellectual leaders.

Who universities invest in, fund, partner with and teach, and how, will increasingly be judged through a climate change lens. All actors in the fossil fuel value chain – including insurance brokers and researchers – are coming under pressure to stop facilitating a form of production that enriches a few while endangering all.

Networks such as the International Universities Climate Alliance, the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability are pushing for change in and by the sector.

In 2019, three global university networks organised an open letter signed by more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions. It called for the sector to reduce emissions and invest in climate change research, teaching and outreach. Even more have signed the SDG (sustainable development goals) Accord’s climate emergency declaration, which calls for:

  • mobilising more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation

  • committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest

  • increasing the delivery of environmental and sustainability education across curriculum, campus and community outreach programs.

Some universities are already starting to build aspects of climate change into their operations. Most prominent have been efforts to divest university finances from direct support of fossil fuels. While some institutions are still dragging their feet, the University of California has announced it will fully divest its US$126 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

Pressure is similarly growing for Unisuper to stop investing Australian university staff superannuation into corporations that endanger the very future staff are saving for.

University campuses are being refigured as sites of energy production and consumption. Strathmore University in Kenya and RMIT University in Australia are among those who produce their own renewable energy.

RMIT university produces its own renewable energy.

Although few universities are working towards absolute reductions in emissions, or have appropriate climate adaptation plans, initiatives such as the Times Higher Education Impact Index are increasing interest in visible climate action.

… and they must change teaching and research

Teaching and research too must change. University students can choose programs and optional modules dedicated to climate change. But this isn’t enough. Climate change has to be integrated in all disciplines.

It is essential universities do not quarantine climate change as some kind of specialist topic. A recent analysis of management studies found a profound lack of engagement across the discipline with the implications of climate change.

As Cornell University’s Professor of Engineering Anthony Ingraffea argues, when it comes to educating the future generation, “doing the right thing on climate change should be baked into an engineer’s DNA”.

This means recognising the strong overlap between work that has instrumental value for climate change action and work that celebrates the intrinsic value of human understanding. The intellectual and social challenges presented by climate change are perhaps the greatest justification yet for why we need open-minded, open-ended exploration and dialogue of the sort universities can provide.

Universities produce the knowledge galvanising others to act. It is time for them to act too. It is time for all of us who work in or with universities to reappraise our institutions in light of the changes needed, the changes coming, and the changes already here.

This is the public mission of universities in the 21st century. And it is the most pressing mission there is.

The next article linked to the podcast will look at universities and the nation’s workforce.

Universities and climate was made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney – an audio production house combining academic research and audio storytelling.The Conversation

Lauren Rickards, Associate Professor, Sustainability and Urban Planning, School of Global Urban and Social Studies; Co-leader, Climate Change and Resilience Research Program, Centre for Urban Studies, RMIT University and Tamson Pietsch, Associate Professor, Social & Political Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Back from extinction: a world first effort to return threatened pangolins to the wild

Alex Braczkowski, Author provided

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Griffith University; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University, and Raymond Jansen, Tshwane University of Technology

Pangolins are one of the most illegally trafficked animals on the planet and are suspected to be linked to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Pangolins are also one of the world’s most threatened species but new efforts are underway to reintroduce pangolins to parts of Africa where the animal has been extinct for decades.

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The reintroduction of pangolins has not been easy. But it’s vital to prevent this shy, mysterious creature from being lost forever.

A cute but threatened species

Pangolins are the only mammals wholly-covered in scales, which they use to protect themselves from predators. They can also curl up into a tight ball.

They eat mainly ants, termites and larvae which they pick up with their sticky tongue. They can grow up to 1m in length from nose to tail and are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters.

But all eight pangolin species are classified as “threatened” under International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria.

There is an unprecedented demand for their scales, primarily from countries in Asia and Africa where they are used in food, cultural remedies and medicine.

Between 2017 and 2019, seizures of pangolin scales tripled in volume. In 2019 alone, 97 tons of pangolin scales, equivalent to about 150,000 animals, were reportedly intercepted leaving Africa.

There is further evidence of the illegal trade in pangolin species openly on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The intense global trafficking of the species means the entire order (Pholidota) is threatened with extinction. For example, the Temminck’s pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) went extinct in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal Province three decades ago.

Reintroduction of an extinct species

Each year in South Africa the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) retrieves between 20 and 40 pangolins through intelligence operations with security forces.

These pangolins are often-traumatised and injured and are admitted to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital for extensive medical treatment and rehabilitation before they can be considered for release.

In 2019, seven rescued Temminck’s pangolins were reintroduced into South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reservein the KwaZulu Natal Province.

Nine months on, five have survived. This reintroduction is a world first for a region that last saw a viable population of this species in the 1980s.

During the release, every individual pangolin followed a strict regime. They needed to become familiar with their new surroundings and be able to forage efficiently.

Pangolins curl up into a tight ball of scales.
Alex Braczkowski

Previous releases, including early on in South Africa and in other countries such as the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thailand had minimal post-release monitoring.

Pangolins released immediately following medical treatment had a low level of survival for various reasons, including inability to adapt to their release sites.

A ‘soft release’ in to the wild

The process on Phinda game reserve involved a more gentle ease into re-wilding a population in a region that had not seen pangolins for many decades.

The soft release had two phases:

  1. a pre-release observational period
  2. an intensive monitoring period post release employing GPS satellite as well as VHF tracking tags.
A satellite tag is fitted to each pangolin before release and transmits its location on an hourly basis.
Alex Braczkowski

The pre-release period lasted between two to three weeks and were characterised by daily walks (three to five hours) of individuals on the reserves. These walks were critical for acclimatising individuals to the local habitat, its sounds, smells and possible threats. It also helped them source suitable and sufficient ant and termite species for food.

Following that, the post release period of two to three months involved locating released pangolins daily at first, and then twice per week where they were weighed, a rapid health assessment was made and habitat features such as burrows and refuges monitored.

Phinda reserve manager Simon Naylor said:

A key component of the post release period was whether individuals gained or maintained their weight.

The way the animals move after release also reveals important clues to whether they will stay in an area; if they feed, roll in dung, enter burrows. Much of this behaviour indicates site fidelity and habitat acceptance.

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Following nine months of monitoring and tracking, five of the seven survived in the region. One died of illness while the other was killed by a Nile crocodile.

Released pangolins are located at burrows like this one.
Alex Braczkowski

Why pangolin reintroduction is important

We know so little about this group of mammals that are vastly understudied and hold many secrets yet to be discovered by science but are on the verge of collapse.

The South African and Phinda story is one of hope for the Temminck’s pangolin where they once again roam the savanna hills and plains of Zululand.

The process of relocating these trade animals back into the wild has taken many turns, failures and tribulations but, the recipe of the “soft release” is working.The Conversation

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Research Associate, Griffith University; Christopher O’Bryan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Raymond Jansen, Professor: Zoology & Ecology, Tshwane University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.