Unis have vital role in times of crisis

At the start of a new decade, it suddenly feels like we are in a different world.

The catastrophic effects of climate change, so long predicted by climate experts, are terrifyingly and obviously upon us - perhaps, some suggest, sooner and more ferociously even than forecast.

All of this was brought home to us by the terrible bushfires that tore through large parts of NSW, Victoria and South Australia over the Christmas and New Year period.

Like many Australians, and many others around the world, I watched the nightly news reports with growing horror and dismay as the scale of the disaster unfolded.

I felt a terrible sense of loss and mourning for the lives destroyed, the people displaced and the flora and fauna incinerated. A rising frustration sat uncomfortably alongside a deep admiration for the leaders in our emergency services, for the firefighters on the ground, and for the resilience shown by impacted communities.

At times like these, it could be easy to think that universities are not part of the community that is impacted by fires or which can help us to respond. But the truth is universities have a vital role to play.

The first thing we can do is to provide practical assistance to those in our community who have been affected. La Trobe is offering financial and counselling assistance to students and staff who have suffered bereavement or financial loss.

We've also put our resources at the disposal of the community, making student accommodation on our Albury-Wodonga campus available to the police and visiting US fire fighters so they have somewhere safe to stay.

We've made our expertise available to the general public, particularly through national and international media. Our bushfire experts have shared their vast knowledge of load reduction, the impact of bushfires on wildlife and on the wine industry with media in Australia and around the world, bringing a welcome clarity to the public discourse on matters than can be easily misunderstood or misrepresented.

Looking ahead, we are pledging to help rebuild communities. We're in discussion with State and Federal Governments about how we can best assist, and have pledged to hold university events in fire affected areas over the next 18 months to support the recovery of local economies. Our Aspire early admissions program, which rewards students who volunteer with the CFA, is another example of how we can take practical steps to improve the resilience of our communities.

Universities also play an important role as thought leaders in the community. That's why we have already committed to remove fossil fuels from our investment portfolio, and to being the first University in Victoria to reduce our net emissions to zero by 2029.

It's also why the University has published Ross Garnaut's important new book 'Superpower', which looks at the opportunity for Australia to become a major player in a low carbon world fuelled by renewable energy. The book is published under our publishing partnership with Black Inc, the La Trobe University Press, and has attracted huge attention.

It has already sold 10,000 copies, an extraordinary number for a non-fiction book, not least because it sees climate change as much as an opportunity as a threat. It shows very clearly the huge economic opportunities our nation can take up by exploiting Australia's unique natural renewable resources.

This will make a big dent in addressing climate change and at the same time develop sustainable new industries and jobs: a win/win outcome for government and citizens alike.

No doubt we can - and will - do more. But we can start by showing other organisations what is possible without waiting for governments to act.

Climate change is already the dominant motif of this new decade - in politics, government, the economy, science and innovation, and in just about every aspect of our everyday lives.

University academics can help us to identify new ways to reduce emissions, to mitigate the inevitable impact of further climate change, and to measure and understand its physical, social and political impacts.

We will look back on the present as a time when, as WB Yeats wrote, 'all changed, changed utterly'.

I hope La Trobe will be remembered as a university that took its civic responsibilities seriously in this time of crisis.

It is up to us to do everything we can to ensure that the change is, as far as possible, for the good of our communities and our shared planet.

Originally published by Australian Community Media.