Watching a national disaster unfold can feel crippling, as the past weeks and months of bushfires have raged on across much of New South Wales and many parts of Australia. I’m sure we’ve all been having these conversations over the last few weeks.
It can also be galvanising, with our firefighters and volunteers, bravely grappling with an increasingly difficult set of circumstances to manage. The extended drought, high temperatures and high winds have inhibited hazard management and made their task that much harder and, in some cases, impossible.
Our communities have acted quickly and it has been amazing to see people pulling together, fighting fires, raising large amounts of money and putting in hours of effort to provide support across so many areas. In our regions we have seen the lengths that people have gone in supporting evacuation centres, providing food and shelter, supporting local businesses and housing beloved pets and valuable livestock. We have seen the best of what Australians can do in this. We should not forget the contributions of those from overseas with the tragic loss of life of American airmen this week.
Universities, too, have a crucial role to play, not only in times of crisis but for the long-term, in minimising our own footprint and leading our nation’s minds to develop solutions for a planet that is warming up.
At Charles Sturt, our motto is ‘for the public good’ based on the writings of Sturt himself. We have also adopted a Wiradjuri phrase as our ethos; yindyamarra winhanganha which translates as ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in’. This resonates strongly for us and that means that seeking to live sustainably is at the core of what we do. Many years and two Vice-Chancellors ago, we built a sustainable campus in Albury-Wodonga. Standing on the shoulders of those who came before me, we have continued to ask ourselves: are we contributing positively or negatively to the environment?
In 2008 Charles Sturt made a commitment to become carbon neutral and after many years of work and commitment, by July 2016 we were Australia’s first officially Federally certified carbon neutral university. At the time, we were the only university to reach that national standard. Since then, we’ve invested in many sustainability initiatives. Clean energy is one, with our rooftop solar power panels being one of the most practical and cost effective sources of energy for campuses. We installed solar panels at Wagga campus in 2017 and at Albury-Wodonga, Orange and Dubbo by the end of 2019. We are mid-install at Bathurst. We could power 1000 houses with the renewable energy harnessed through solar power.
Yes, it costs money. And with ever-tightening budgets, it can seem difficult to justify the spend. Our solar program cost 7.5 million; it will save us 700 000 each year. Those are large figures but it will eventually find a return on investment financially. More importantly, the benefit to the environment is critical and it demonstrates leadership to others. We cannot wait for governments to give us the money to do this. We and other institutions have shown that it can be done if you have the will.
Of course, continued research is critical. We and other regional universities resident in bushfire affected areas have on-the-ground research relevant to climate adaptation and to community resilience. We will, with our communities, support their regrowth and preparation for the future.
Finally, it is not just in university operations and research that sustainability is critical. Our biggest contribution is through our graduates. They will influence their communities and industries for generations to come, and as part of their education we must ensure they think about sustainability and resilience, no matter what their discipline. Charles Sturt is implementing our updated Graduate Learning Outcomes, one of which is to apply sustainable practice in all undergraduate degrees. Graduates will be able to practice a range of skills that reflect and live up to the idea of ‘yindyamarra winhanganha’.
As we see more weather extremes, we must face reality; we need people with a set of skills ready to respond to the impacts of climate change, across the diversity of industry. Universities cannot be seen as bystanders, hands-off in the face of the global changes we are already experiencing. We must be hands-on, providing people with skills, ideas and hope to meet the challenge we all face.