Dean Forbes



Corporate Social Responsibility 2007 Summit

State Library of NSW, Sydney

31 October-1 November 2007

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University


How do we ‘elevate from belief to action’ on climate change? 

Mick Kelty recently said that:

‘climate change, with the threat of water and food shortages and refugees fleeing rising sea levels, is the greatest security risk of this century (The Australian, 25/9/07).

It brought a quick response from the Prime Minister, of course, eager not to underplay the terrorist threat.  That was a month ago.  The PM’s response today may well be different.

Some dispute the science of climate change.  The Great Global Warming Swindle argued that variations in the sun’s heat radiation are a more powerful influence on global warming than GHG emissions.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Denial Machine mounted a robust criticism of the skeptic’s case.  Science of this complexity is an imperfect art. 

Nevertheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recently released material, leading up to the fourth assessment report, and Nobel Prize, is compelling.  On balance, the scientific case is solid. 

I have two primary responses to the challenge in the title to this session.  They are a variation on the environmentalists’ mantra to ‘think globally and act locally’. 

I believe we need to act locally and act globally.

In the words of Woody Allen: ‘Some people drink from the river of life.  Others just gargle’.  Now is the time to move on the local and international fronts.  No more gargling.


I will start with acting locally.  The business community, and in this I include universities, needs to take responsibility for addressing climate change issues. 

Setting an Example

Earlier today I gave a presentation on sustainability and universities.  I outlined some of the initiatives being taken to reduce carbon emissions and make university campuses sustainable.  Corporations and universities are role models, and highly competitive.  The sustainability challenge is spreading among universities. 

Like other large entities, universities must set an example on actions to address climate change and work towards sustainability.

Working With Business

In addition to getting their own houses in order, universities should also seek to work with businesses on addressing their environmental problems.

Flinders University does this through a program with the acronym BRASH, which stands for Business and Research Alliances for Sustainable Habitats. 

I visited the University of East Anglia in September 2004 to talk about cooperation in environmental research.  While there I had the opportunity to meet a group that had established two interesting university community partnerships. 

One was an Environmental Management Systems (EMS) Club, the members of which were local businesses that were in need of support for the environmental compliance aspects of their business. 

The other was a program for the community titled CRED, which stood for carbon reduction, and tried to engage the citizens and businesses in everyday techniques for reducing carbon emissions.  Between them these represented successful practical means of support for industries in East Anglia.

The idea of the EMS Club and CRED was brought back to Adelaide and we set up BRASH (what would a world without acronyms be like?).  Its focus is on the southern suburbs of Adelaide adjacent to the university, primarily the local councils of Marion, Mitcham and Onkaparinga.  The latter has an active Sustainable Industries Program, which meshes nicely with BRASH. 

BRASH links Flinders University’s environment expertise with enterprises wanting to enhance their sustainability practices

•    Assistance with workplace environmental audits

•    Instruction on developing environmental management systems

•    Guidance in preparing environmental reports that demonstrate improvements

•    Preparation of certification to qualify for tenders

•    Advice on more energy efficient plant or water use or waste management

BRASH then facilitates a link with academic staff, a research cluster, or Flinders commercial consulting company, depending on the level of support required. 

Alternatively, where appropriate, a student might be given the task as part of their work-related training.  A proposal is currently under discussion with Business SA to fund this initiative.

Working With The Media

Universities can also support the media in spreading and popularizing climate change responses.

Earlier this year I watched a television program called “Cool Aid: The National Carbon Test” (4 March 2007).  It was devoted to global warming and its consequences, and to how individuals and the community could reduce GHG emissions. 

It had a strong practical focus.  “Cool Aid” included film footage of a number of individuals and families living out their daily lives, while a scientist, naturally wearing a white coat and holding a clipboard (as you do), compiled a household audit to determine how their daily life contributed to GHG emissions.  The household GHG audits were undertaken by researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. 

This form of environmental awareness activity on prime time commercial television was widely viewed in Australia.  The university-media partnership added some scientific gravitas to the event.  Albeit at a cost to the image of scientists.  I was reminded of one of my colleagues describing scientists as people who ‘wear white coats and are unable to park their bicycles in a straight line’.

Eco Heroes

Before I finish this part of my talk, I want to mention one more issue. 

The studio audience for Cool Aid included Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources; and Peter Garrett, the Opposition Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment, Heritage and the Arts (rock music).  As we all know, Mr Turnbull and Mr Garrett are two of the highest profile and more charismatic politicians in Australia. 

When I lectured on the environment and urban public policy I devoted part of a lecture to what I called ‘eco heroes’.  I asked the students to address a question: who are the most prominent ‘eco heroes’ and how significant are they in shaping the agenda on the environment?  We invariably ended up focussing on David Suzuki, as every time I ran the lecture he seemed to be in Adelaide.

Will the profile and charisma of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Garrett galvanise the environmental interest of the Australian people?  And, of course, there are a number of other celebrity ‘eco heroes’ and wannabe ‘eco heroes’ on climate change.

My digression was prompted by Naomi Klein’s recent criticism of the ‘Bono-isation’ of protest against world poverty, on the grounds that ‘stadium rock protest’ is less powerful than grass roots demonstrations (The Australian 12/10/07). 

Can we leave it to Bono?  Or is this a diversion of public interest from the environment to the celebrity?


Will the acting locally I have spoken about so far, bring about a tipping point on climate change?  Regrettably, no.  Helpful, having an impact, but ultimately, not creating a tipping point.

In addition to acting locally, we also need to act globally. 

Carbon Emissions Trading

Policies need to be framed to give real substance to behaviour change.  We must all pay the costs of the impact of our carbon emissions on the global environment.  That means a carbon emissions trading system.

Both Prime Minister John Howard, and Deputy Prime Minister Peter Costello, have spoken publicly on energy and global warming over the past year.  Much of it has been a defence of Australia’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which the PM considers a European initiative.  His concerns are the impact the protocols would have on Australia’s industries and fossil fuel energy production and export.

The Government argues that it is acting in the spirit of Kyoto by committing to limiting greenhouse emissions growth to 108% of the 1990 baseline.  It believes this is the equivalent of a 30% reduction in the growth of carbon emissions.  This means a reduction in GHG intensity, but not in GHGs themselves.

The Government wants an alternative form of carbon trading for a post-Kyoto world.  It established a Task Group on Emissions Trading that recently delivered a report on a National Emissions Trading Scheme.  The PM’s response was fast.  On 3 June 2007 he announced that the Government would introduce a ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading scheme.

But in failing to sign the Kyoto agreement, Australia has set itself apart from a large number of countries willing to publicly acknowledge their climate change concerns, and agree on targets.  He has sown the seeds of confusion domestically, and internationally.

Working With Asia

Climate change affects everyone on the planet.  Australia is not a global power, but it does have responsibilities in the Asia Pacific region.  We must cooperate with Asian Pacific countries on both reducing carbon emissions, and managing the inevitable consequences of past behaviour. 

The rapid growth of the industrial capacity of the Peoples Republic of China affects us all.  Australia is a major supplier of raw materials (and education).  China contributed about half of the growth in global carbon emissions over the past few years (Fry 2007 p 36).  Little progress will be made on a world scale until progress is made in China.

Australia’s links with the other emerging Asian economic giant, India, are building momentum.  But the same reasoning applies.

The Government is keen to develop technology for producing ‘clean coal’ at a competitive price.  It hosted the launch of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate to pursue this strategy.  However, it has been warned that clean coal technology is two to three decades away.  That is too long to wait.

Australia’s proposed carbon emissions trading system must be part of a global arrangement.  Being a Kyoto signatory would have been helpful.

In addition, regardless of how effective we might be in ameliorating the conditions currently creating environmental change, there is a significant amount of work that needs to be done on the inevitable impact of environmental change upon Asian Pacific societies. 

For example, the Asian Pacific region is the home of some of the world’s largest megacities.  Many are major industrial centres and many have coastal or low-lying locations.  Most are in poor countries.  The impact of Asian Pacific megacities on GHG emissions is significant, and the consequences of environmental change for Asian Pacific megacities is likely to be severe. 


The discussion groups are asked to identify three decisive actions. 

My suggestion, it will come as no surprise, is to: act locally and act globally.  And, in doing so, acknowledge the interconnectedness of those two levels of action.  To use a current phase, walk the walk, and talk the talk.  This surely presents a major challenge for a coal-producing, coal consuming country that has not signed the Kyoto protocols. 


Fry, Elizabeth 2007 “Carbon prophets” Australia China Connections, September/October, pp 36-7.

Schneider, Stephen 2006 Climate Change: Risks and Opportunities, Adelaide Thinkers in Residence, Department of the Premier and Cabinet.