How universities and professions are preparing to meet the climate challenge

Shamit Saggar, University of Western Australia

Getting ahead of climate change challenges is now a pressing need across our economy and society. Last month the bosses of 22 of Australia’s largest firms, including BHP, Rio Tinto, Wesfarmers and Commonwealth Bank, put their names to the Climate Leaders Coalition. It signalled their collective wish to push down emissions and push up their international obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Australia’s politicians are increasingly on the back foot — something universities and professions cannot risk. The cockpit of the knowledge economy must remain fit for purpose in the face of global challenges.

The biggest of these of late has been marshalling expertise to tackle a global pandemic. Climate change is an even bigger challenge.

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Universities as knowledge communities take pride in leading discovery and understanding. The pressures to update and reform can come from beyond the academy, sometimes in response to perceived failure (think of economics and the GFC) or in meeting demand for new skills (the rapid expansion of business education in the past two decades).

Cover of The Preparedness Report

UWA Public Policy Institute, Author provided

The Preparedness Report, launched today by the UWA Public Policy Institute, argues disciplines, and the practitioners they educate and train, are already changing fast in response to climate change.

The report highlights the nature and extent of retooling in six fields: engineering, architecture, law, economics, healthcare and oceanography (the same is true for around 20 more disciplines).

Key questions for all professions

All professions need to find timely answers to some core questions:

  • What will be the practical impacts of climate change on the feasibility, processes, sustainability and operations of their professions?

  • How will future members of the professions need to be educated, trained and accredited?

  • How will the underlying disciplines change?

  • Which new fields of research and education will emerge?

  • How will different disciplines develop new cross-overs and synergies?

Many new skills and competencies will have to be taught. Think, for example, of the need to engineer heat-tolerant public transport systems and plan water-sensitive cities.

Fresh mechanisms are also needed to ensure the value of current expertise, such as actuaries’ capacity to model commercial and household risk for insurance purposes.

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Greater use of cross-disciplinary collaboration will be needed too — for example, in building design and construction.

How 6 disciplines are responding

Engineering is synonymous with industrial society so has much to reflect on in terms of repurposing. Engineers will have to recalibrate their earlier assumptions. As UWA environmental engineer Anas Ghadouani notes:

Consider the fact that the sectors at the top of the emissions pyramid, including transport, electricity production and manufacturing, contributed over 75% of emissions. These top emitting sectors have been flush with engineers and engineering companies.

For architects to be credible in this new environment, they must grasp that “our modern experience of globalisation is predicated on three phenomena with spatial and environmental consequences: mobility, dispersion and density”, says UWA’s School of Design dean, Kate Hislop. Thus:

Lowering CO₂ emissions involves regenerative design, adaptive reuse, life-cycle costing, carbon modelling, post-occupancy evaluation, waste minimisation and adoption of low embodied carbon materials and systems.

Academic law is heavily exposed, and its challenges, reports David Hodgkinson from UWA’s School of Law, boil down to the laws and regulations that can be introduced to reduce emissions and assist people, species and ecosystems vulnerable to climate change. It is a question of intergenerational justice. He concludes:

The main issue at stake is that if we agree to reduce emissions now, people living in the future will benefit, not those living today. But we will, today, bear the costs of reducing such emissions.

For economists, whose counsel has become embedded in part thanks to the landmark Stern Report, the greatest contribution has been in evaluating policy options that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their very strong consensus is that the key policy response is to place a price on greenhouse gas emissions. David Pannell, who leads UWA’s Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy, states:

There are differences of opinion about whether a tax or a market in permits would be superior [in reducing emissions], but there is almost no dissent among economists that one or the other of these is needed.

In the field of health care, the emphasis is on training health-care professionals. For Sajni Gudka, from UWA’s School of Population and Global Health, climate change amounts to a public health emergency:

Real capacity shortfalls are close by in responding to growing infectious diseases, heat stress, food insecurity, poor water quality and nutrition.

Finally, for oceanography the urgency lies in mitigating the effects of climate change in coastal zones. Julian Partridge and Charitha Pattiaratchi, of UWA’s Oceans Institute, say a breakthrough depends on a grand alliance of disciplinary perspectives:

Climate change challenges cannot be solved by engineers and scientists alone. They need alliances with social scientists, cultural heritage specialists and others to join this collective endeavour.

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Waiting for political action

The focus of the report is on the academic sector, related professions and the knowledge economy. But the preparedness question is also being asked of the political class and specific governments. As public attitudes become accustomed to environmental stewardship, heightened by the bushfire crisis last summer, voters are beginning to choose a direction of travel that was until recently dismissed.

In Western Australia, the government has just released its new Climate Change Policy, following several other states. Doctors for the Environment Australia is one of many campaigns that question the sagacity of short-term economic priorities.

How prepared is the country’s political class to use the advances made by universities and professions to address climate change?The Conversation

Shamit Saggar, Professor and Director, Public Policy institute, University of Western Australia

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


The K’gari-Fraser Island bushfire is causing catastrophic damage. What can we expect when it’s all over?

Gabriel Conroy, University of the Sunshine Coast

K’gari (Fraser Island) has been burning for more than seven weeks and, so far, the fires have razed half of the World Heritage-listed island off the coast of Queensland. The devastation will become more pronounced in coming weeks, despite overnight rain.

Much of the commentary on these fires has focused on how these landscapes are “meant to burn”, and that (luckily) there have been no major fires in the fire-sensitive, rainforest-style ecosystems in the island’s centre.

However, the fact remains that a fire of this magnitude will alter the ecological balance on the island. Let’s explore why.

An uphill battle

K’gari is an incredibly biodiverse place, with more than 30 mammal species, 354 types of birds, 60 reptiles and 17 types of frogs.

For thousands of years, the Butchulla traditional owners maintained the island’s ecosystems with patch mosaic burning. The general principle behind patch mosaic burning is that by burning regularly and strategically, you create habitat niches that cater for a wide variety of generalist and specialist species, which favours biodiversity.

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With an absence of this mode of burning during 130 years of logging on the island (ending in 1991), today’s environmental managers have faced an uphill battle to claw back the balance.

This — alongside tinder-dry conditions and large swathes of relatively inaccessible wilderness in the north — is why we unfortunately find ourselves in the situation where an incredibly widespread, intense fire has occurred.

These types of fires can irrevocably alter the nature of even fire-adapted ecosystems (like in the northern half of K’gari) and are likely to become more commonplace in our changing climate.

Let’s take two of K’gari’s rare plant species — the tiny wattle (Acacia baueri) and the much-loved Christmas bells (Blandfordia grandiflora) — as examples of why the Australian landscape’s need for fire isn’t straightforward, and requires patch burning.

Christmas bells
Christmas bells flower for one to three years after a fire, and then disappear underground.

These species rely on low intensity fire occurring every three to five years to regenerate and avoid local extinction.

However, other fire-adapted species that grow alongside them, such as Banksia robur, would struggle to withstand burning this frequently. Some may not even be able to reach reproductive maturity during that kind of time span.

Invertebrates: the island’s unheralded heroes

K’gari is famous for its wild population of dingoes, which undoubtedly will have suffered in these fires. We won’t know the full impact for these and many other species until the dust has settled.

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But one of my greatest concerns is for the largely forgotten species propping up ecosystems: invertebrates. In normal circumstances, the island is teeming with highly abundant and diverse invertebrate life if you bother to look for it — and will undoubtedly bite you or keep you awake at night even if you don’t.

Herbivorous species, including insects, are the unheralded heroes that transfer a lot of the the energy generated by plants up through the food chain, for example, by providing food for predators like dingoes.

With 50% (and counting) of the island’s ecosystems already burnt in this fire, the amount of food available for herbivores has reduced. This means significantly less energy can be fed back up the food chain, affecting the entire ecosystem.

A dingo on the beach
Wild dingoes are an important feature of the World Heritage-listed island.

When there’s nowhere to escape

On mainland Australia, birds, bugs and fast-moving animals like dingoes and wallabies often flee to safe habitats when fires occur, and then later recolonise fire-affected regions.

Although relatively close to the mainland, K’gari is a very long and narrow island, and because the entire northern end of the island has burnt, most terrestrial species have only a narrow interface through the central part of the island to try to escape. These lack of escape routes will likely exacerbate death rates of native fauna.

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To make matters worse, the ecosystems to the north are markedly different to those in the centre of the island. So while we wait to see how the northern regions regenerate, the species that depend on them may have moved further south to find equivalent ecosystems.

Effectively, only 50% of the island now provides habitat and food sources for the entire island’s wildlife, and the remaining habitat is not always a like-for-like replacement.

How will it look when it ‘bounces back’?

When the fires have extinguished and plants begin to regenerate, a sea of green may convince people the ecosystems have bounced back marvellously from the fires. But in actual fact, they may have been irrevocably changed.

Certain species will flourish in the post-fire environment, but because of the fire’s widespread nature, it’s possible the composition of the vegetation will change.

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Weeds, for example, love bare ground, and even native species can become “weedy” in nature and can dominate in disturbed areas. In ongoing research, our team has observed this in areas of the island impacted by sand mining in the 1970s, where there’s an overabundance of immature Acacia and Casuarina species.

My greatest hope is that the future of K’gari includes patch mosaic burning (and cultural burns) at a landscape scale.

If we want to ensure K’gari bounces back as much as possible, then we need to use these devastating bushfires as an opportunity to work collaboratively towards a common conservation goal.

The intent from key stakeholders is evident, with productive conversations already occurring between our team at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation. For this to come to fruition, on-ground efforts will need to be well-resourced and supported by ongoing monitoring and research.The Conversation

Gabriel Conroy, Environmental Management Program Coordinator, University of the Sunshine Coast

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