Climate Change And State Security


The Australian Senate is currently carrying out an inquiry into the implications of climate change for Australia’s national security. Although the inquiry is due to run until next month, many expert submissions have already been made and, following on from the Department of Defence’s 2016 White Paper, now is an apt time to examine the state of the climate debate in Australia and how this impacts security.

It is well-established scientific knowledge that human-induced global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases is altering our climate, with rising temperatures leading to changes such as higher sea levels and more frequent extreme weather occurrences. Since around 1950 we have been living in the Anthropocene era, defined by the geological impact human activity has on the planet. Despite the settled state of climate science however, vested interests in business and politics continue to debate its merits and stall action on combatting activities that contribute to global warming. In Australia, for example, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously described climate science as “crap,” and his conservative factional colleagues continue to direct climate policy under the current Government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Australia also ranks as the highest emitter of greenhouse emissions per capita. The enormous influence of energy giants whose profits are made on the back of greenhouse gases is an important part of the Australian (and indeed, global) political landscape.

Within the past decade, however, the national security establishments of key Australian allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom have begun to assess the impacts of climate change on state security and sought to develop plans and frameworks to respond to these changes. Australia has been characteristically slow in its response to the issue, and is only now beginning to examine the issue in more depth. This requires attempting to understand the long-term environmental, geopolitical, and socioeconomic impacts likely to result from climate change and how they might be approached.

In 2014, over half of the world’s natural disasters occurred within the Asia-Pacific region; it is the area most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, leading the Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration to label it “Disaster Alley” in a recent report. But how does climate change affect the security of states? Firstly, it is important to note that climate change in and of itself does not cause conflict; instead it is considered a ‘threat multiplier,’ in that it increases the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing stresses. For example, the impacts of climate change can affect food and water security, leading to shortages and potential conflict. Soaring food prices have the potential to force populations to move in search of affordable food, leading to widespread displacement with potentially grave implications for human security. On a large enough scale, such population movements, both within and across borders, may also lead to conflict and threaten the security of states. The Climate Council points out, for example, the role of rioting over food prices (exacerbated by drought) in the ‘Arab Spring’ protest movements across the Middle East in 2011.

As Professor Jon Barnett of the University of Melbourne argues, the national security implications of climate change “will emerge through social responses to changing environmental conditions.” It is therefore likely that Australia’s armed forces will be required to focus more resources on disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions, both domestically and within the wider region. The Centre for Climate and Security posits that this may eventually change the structure of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and see a greater emphasis on cooperation with civilian agencies. The growing risk of an onset of more complex emergencies, such as several disasters occurring concurrently and/or for longer durations, means it is essential that comprehensive frameworks for responding to such events are developed and implemented.

Climate change will also see state security threatened through damage to both civilian and military infrastructure, undermining the readiness and ability of military forces to undertake missions. The risks to capability occur when, for example, sites are damaged or rendered inaccessible by rising sea levels. More frequent and intense extreme weather events will also likely damage civilian infrastructure such as transportation and electricity networks, posing further challenges to defence force readiness. In addition, the effects of extreme heat on the health of personnel is a growing concern, highlighted by former Chief of the ADF Chris Barrie, among others.

How can governments better respond to the threats to security posed by climate change? On a general level, there should be greater planning for the impacts of climate change, particularly the fundamental risks to human security posed by more frequent extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Such planning should be integrated across all levels of governance, including transnational. Australia, for example, must ensure that it helps other countries within the Asia-Pacific region prepare for climate change-related events, as the flow-on effects will certainly spill across borders. Jon Barnett recommends, for example, better targeting development aid to focus on measures that mitigate the impacts of climate change. Defence forces must also plan long-term and ensure they are adequately structured and resourced to meet what will be a new strategic environment. There should be a focus on preparing for more frequent and intense natural disasters and the corresponding humanitarian crises. Such planning will involve more resources and greater collaboration across relevant agencies at all levels of government.

More broadly however, it is clear that an urgent reassessment of the impacts of climate change is required. Human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has been scientifically shown to be the primary cause of global warming. The consequences are serious, and a continuation of the status quo will not see this problem go away; current actions serve only to exacerbate the problem. This will have serious repercussions for the security of states and, more importantly, for human security more broadly. Our current political and economic structures have proven incapable of responding adequately to the increasingly urgent risks posed by climate change, and must be widely reformed. This will require directly challenging the vested interests embedded within both our economy and polity, who act with a callous and selfish disregard for the long-term impacts of their actions.

The climate change discourse should also be reframed, seeking to bring home to the public the urgency of this global crisis. Global warming and its impacts on the world’s climate have the potential to one day wipe out intelligent life on this planet; Breakthrough’s “Disaster Alley” report estimates that the emissions path of the Paris climate agreement has a 50% chance of exceeding 3°C, a point at which conditions of social chaos are predicted to emerge. This process would most likely be drawn out as human security and our quality of life gradually spiralled downwards. It is clearly a matter of the upmost importance.

Mark Hopkins

Mark is a Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Sydney with a major in history. He is interested in the history, culture and politics of Asia and Australia's position within the region.

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About Mark Hopkins

Mark is a Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Sydney with a major in history. He is interested in the history, culture and politics of Asia and Australia's position within the region.