Leading environmental scientist and 2007 Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery, says the challenges of climate change mean universities are preparing students for a very different world, and one that is coming sooner than we thought.
Delivering the inaugural UTS Annual Anniversary Address to mark the university's 20th anniversary, Professor Flannery said he hoped UTS would see its 40th, or 60th, or 80th birthday, but it would only do so if "we get all of these challenges right."
Summarising the latest diagnosis of global climatic health, Professor Flannery said early figures for this year show no abatement of the greatly accelerated melting of the Arctic ice cap first observed in 2005.
He said that even on conservative projections, the tipping point between "the climate we have and a new climate" had been reached and exceeded.
He said it was estimated the world had about 20 years to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before reaching the "point of no return" where nothing could reverse the trend.
"This century will have lots of social problems, problems of war and peace, but the overriding concerns are going to be the concerns of sustainability," Professor Flannery said. "If we don't rise to that challenge the consequences will be far worse for humanity, I believe, than would have been the case of a failure (to deal with social upheavals) in the nineteenth century."
Professor Flannery said it was a huge burden for the current generations and the students of the future who would have to carry it forward.
Universities would be crucial in not only contributing to research to address the practical problems but as "the environment where leadership begins" in creating a sustainable world.
"I think universities should do what they have always done – prepare people for useful and meaningful employment and for being good citizens in the future world.
"We can see the shape of that future world very clearly now – we know there has to be a very large-scale response around the issue of sustainability and a social response as well."
Professor Flannery said that if universities frame their work in that context they will be "ahead of the curve" in meaningfully preparing students for employment and engagement with the society that is to come.
Professor Flannery's address can be viewed in full on the UTS anniversary website