Saving Australia: Universities offer hand to rebuild country as fires rage on
Leading universities in Australia have clubbed together to offer all the help it can to rebuild the country and its communities, as blazing fires continue to devastate large swathes of land in the worst bushfire crisis seen in decades.
In a letter to Education Minister Dan Tehan, universities under the prestigious Group of Eight (Go8) umbrella committed to providing immediate and future support to all victims of the fires across Australia.
The range of assistance varies widely, with short-term support including financial aid to affected students, on-campus accommodation for displaced families, agistment for livestock, trauma support for first responders, and specialised medical care for burns victims.
In the medium to long term, the universities will provide resources and liaise with federal agencies to offer their expertise in rebuilding communities, industries, economies and climate science.
“Support for communities affected by bushfires is paramount,” Go8 Chief Executive Vicki Thomson wrote in a Twitter update on the weekend.
“Unis will pull together collective expertise to support Govt communities & emergency services now tomorrow & in the aftermath,” she added.
Support for communities affected by bushfires is paramount @GroupOfEight Unis will pull together collective expertise to support Govt communities &emergency services now tomorrow &in the aftermath @uwanews @UniofAdelaide @MonashUni @unimelb @ANUmedia @Sydney_Uni @UNSW @UQ_News
— Vicki Thomson (@ThomsonVicki) January 5, 2020
The Go8 is a coalition of world-leading research-intensive universities in Australia that includes some of the country’s largest, oldest and most highly-ranked institutions. Universities under the Go8 umbrella are the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Melbourne, Monash University, Australian National University, and the universities of Western Australia, Adelaide, and Queensland.
“We understand absolutely as the group of universities which undertakes 70 percent of university research in Australia, that in the midst of this climate emergency we must continue to pursue the research that helps us understand how we got here and also which gives us the seeds of hope that help us adapt to the future,” Thomson was quoted in The Age as writing in the letter to Tehan.
“I wanted government to be very clear from the start that all that the [Group of Eight] can do in support, we will. This is a heartfelt offer to you of the best minds and expertise that we have – at the government’s and the community’s disposal as and how you wish to make use of it.”
According to The Age, the institutions are now making inventories of the services and expertise they can provide to the communities they serve, although much of the work has already begun.
Monash University, for example, is offering paid firefighting and emergency assistance leave for staff of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and other emergency services who are required to undertake firefighting and related activities. Staff residing in areas impacted by the fires and who are unable to attend work will also receive special five days’ paid leave to deal with the threat.
It is also providing free confidential counselling for staff and students affected by the fires.
The University of Adelaide has expertise on the impact of smoke on viticulture and winemaking and as such, is offering South Australian grape growers and winemakers use of its winemaking and storage facilities. University staff and students are also volunteering time and expertise in checking vines and reinstalling irrigation systems.
The University of Melbourne is providing services to affected students as well as assessing what accommodation it could offer evacuees and how to make its veterinary services available to injured livestock and wildlife.
In addition to the above, the universities are also providing academic expertise to help federal regulators and policymakers make better sense of the crisis and to inform public policy on matters concerning climate change.
More than that, their expert opinions are also shaping public discourse.
For example, it was University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman who first put a number to the impact of the fires on the wildlife population in Australia. According to Dickman, conservative estimates using past data on the impacts of land clearing on Australian wildlife in New South Wales suggest the number of deaths to be at least 480 million in the state alone.
In more recent comments, the expert said the fires have probably killed nearly a billion animals in total across Australia.
The University of Sydney Law School, meanwhile, unanimously voted to declare a climate emergency last December and urged Australia and governments around the world to scale up their emission reduction commitments in the Paris Agreement. It was the first Go8 law school to make the emergency declaration.
Other university academics are offering research expertise in other areas, from publishing critical explainers on climate change and the leading causes of the bushfire crisis to providing advice on how to help those directly impacted by the traumatic event.
“In the midst of our climate emergency, universities need to continue to pursue the research that helps us understand not only how we got here, but also the seeds of hope that will help us adapt for the future,” University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Duncan Ivison wrote on Twitter.
“I know my @Sydney_Uni colleagues are deeply committed to doing so.”
To date, at least 24 people have been killed in the fires that continue to rip through Australia. Over 15.6 million acres of land have been torched in the disaster and some 1,400 homes destroyed.