Comments on Climate Change and Sustainability

Prepared for e-Festival April 2006

Simon Batterbury

University of Melbourne

What role do universities have in answering environmental problems and sustainability? Do you believe that they are doing enough?

The universities act as centres of learning and research on a variety of issues. Firstly, they train students, and many emerge from a university degree with a much sounder understanding of environmental concerns. Many of our own students go on to careers in environmental policymaking and development, in VIC, in Australia, and overseas. Secondly, research. Environmental engineering, for example, is making advances on university campuses, just as it is in private sector – but in universities the struggle for money is less urgent and the commercial pressures less intense. Teaching income also provides many of us with the luxury of several paid hours a week to think, write, and conduct research projects. More generally, there are efforts to' mainstream' environmental concerns in teaching and research, but these usually clash with other initiatives on university campuses. For example at the University of Arizona where I taught till 2004, the “Institute for the Study of Planet Earth” led by Jon Overpeck is doing great work on regional and global climate change, but across the campus sits a mining engineering program that has no focus on environmental impacts of mining, concentrating instead on cost-efficient resource extraction - and elsewhere on campus one finds global warming deniers and high-input agricultural researchers. It is very difficult for universities to develop solid environmental credentials across the board, unlike in a NGO or government department where there is closer regulation and more of a shared mission.

There are also conflicts of ideologies. Universities attract bright staff that often have competing views and use different forms of evidence on environmental issues. In a country like Australia that is so dependent on resource extraction to fuel economic growth and high salaries, it is unsurprising that environmentalists compete to have their voices heard on campus, and sometimes fail in this task. Thus, in my own area, a colleague supports the mass export of GM modified crops to “save” the African poor from starvation, while my research shows this problem is best solved by Africans' own farming innovations and better internal distribution, and that GM is an untested and unnecessary technology. We just have to hash it out in print and in debate, and make our points. The public do not appreciate mixed messages, however, which is what they are getting. Students get them too, I suppose, although they sometimes enjoy the debate!

A minor problem is over the ecological footprint of campus-based universities, which have historically been quite extensive. Recent efforts by the University of South Carolina and Oberlin College in the US, both of which house their environmental programs in ultra-efficient buildings, go some way to addressing this problem, and there are other examples. Student groups on campus like mine are well aware of this issue, and lobbying hard.

Another problem and the lack of intellectual debate in western society over futures, both environmental and political - and this is certainly true of Australia . Work by Frank Furedi and Alan Bloom has highlighted a distrust of ‘intellectuals'. Some people don't trust anybody with a university degree and don't like their tax dollars going to support us in any way. We are not seen as 'battlers' despite our 60 hour weeks and low pay. Partly as a result of these public peeceptions, Australian universities struggle for funding, are increasingly having to go ‘private' in terms of income sources. Strangely despite this free market ethos, they are still overly regulated from Canberra.

Does the average person still care about the environment? And is it too late to hope that the solution will be found elsewhere such as in new technology?

People care in a variety of ways, and the “I don't care at all” attitude is rare these days – although one does encounter it. I just spent three days doing a workshop with Indigenous people in the NT on their responses to climate change – the degree of local knowledge about environmental process, and the concern for the future (particularly among Torres Strait Islanders facing inundation from sea level rise) was very high indeed. Indigenous worldviews should receive more respect than they do, especially in Australia and the USA. Historically, however, neoliberal policies have won out in Australia in recent years, exposing young people more to the “shopping and cars” culture that is almost wholly divorced from the concerns of environmentalists.

The USA is further advanced in this trend, and richer than us in Australia– teaching there I would have undergrads who did not know where urban water comes from, what damage driving and industry may do to the global atmosphere , or even where their food comes from. This was worrying, but at least Universities are in position to rectify this knowledge gap.

Who do you see as an ‘environmental hero'? In other words, who do you believe is contributing the most or providing key innovations in improving the state of the environment or sustainable practice?

I cannot priorities the work of individuals for you. I'm from the UK, spent years in the African Sahel, as well as the USA, Denmark and now Australia. In my life heroes have include the poor African farmers I have lived and worked with that spend up to 15 hours a day tilling the soil and preserving what they can of natural capital. In the western countries, people like David Brower, director if the Sierra Club in the US, were an inspiration. Brower stood his ground, and thwarted Federal efforts to flood the Grand Canyon, although he lost other campaigns against big dams and some corporate misdeeds, in his career. Barbera Ward, founder of IIED in the UK, was another iconoclast – her successor Richard Sandbrook, who died recently, was another ( ) . I think that George Monbiot ( does amazing work, and his populist voice pervades the left-centre media in the UK. Such figures are sorely needed today in contemporary Australia, and a few like Bob Brown approach them in presence and commitment in this country. Similarly, several academics have become an embarrassment. David Bellamy and Philip Stott come to mind. What happened there? I have lost some faith with the Ecologist magazine after Zac Goldsmith has been flirting with the Conservative Party. Bjorn Lomborg in Denmark drives me nuts, because of the dodgy cornucopian conclusions he derives from limited data.

What can your average ‘young' person do to make a difference? Are you optimistic for the future? And where do you believe the greatest challenges will lie?

Not really. The global warming signal is dire. I believe in human adaptation to environmental and other stresses and risks, but – and this was very plain talking to Indigenous Australians in the Top End last week – you can 'adapt' to something that is too fast, too sweeping, and out of your control. There is some optimism that terrible polluters are shaping up their act, but this leaves us with USA recalcitrance, and the ‘India and China Problem', whose pollution and CO2 emissions will dwarf what we have now.

What type of pollutant or climatic process are you most concerned about? Is this because its impact is not well-known or is it due to its potential to cause harm?

Straightforward global warming. I have seen all the latest projections for Australia and we are about to publish selected ones on a conference website ( ). Changes to rainfall patterns and temperature, combined with sea level rise, is changing the face of this continent. This is not to say that this has not happened before and humanity survived the glacial/postglacial, but we now have a lot of people and many years of believing that resources are there for exploitation, and that the natural environment can be conquered rather than being a source of vulnerability to us, or worth protecting. This is wrong. That said, I'm not a 'need to save the last quoll/treefrog from extinction' type of person.

Can sustainable practices truly be achieved or will we forever be chasing a trail of pollution and waste?

That is up to us. Or more accurately, you.