You might have heard that Australia caught fire this summer. Almost 5 million hectares have been burned – an area larger than Denmark – and the scale and ferocity of the megafires focused global news coverage Down Under for several weeks around Christmas. Even those in the northern hemisphere might have felt the smoke at the back of their throats as it completed a lap of the world.
It’s a terrible time for the Australian nation. Lives have been lost, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, whole communities have been displaced and many of our unique species have been driven almost to extinction. The final cost, which economists are still modelling, is estimated to be A$5 billion (£2.6 billion), and between 0.2 and 0.5 per cent of Australia’s projected economic growth has literally gone up in smoke.
Still, the fear and nonsense embedded in the media accounts of the fires was almost on the scale of the misinformation that accompanies the topic of climate change. The truth is that the fires have damaged less than 1 per cent of this wide, brown land. The rest of the country is going about its daily business, pitching in to help where it can, and raising money when there’s nothing else left to do.
But Australians are also talking a lot more about global warming – and that’s not likely to end soon. Nor should it. There is a growing consensus within the community that action to prevent further damage is vital, and there is hope that recent events are the tipping point in that regard.
This is where universities come to the fore. They can and should play a leading role, as they have in the past, in informing and supporting this conversation. They are a national asset: a bank of knowledge that the nation and its government can draw on. We can put together multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary groups with the expertise to get to work on arresting the progress of global warming – and the tragic cycle of drought, extreme weather events and natural disasters that comes with it.
We can also help frame the debate. We need to lift engagement and continue to be creative in putting our propositions to the community, to share our knowledge and help stop the spread of nonsense passing as news.