Senior defence experts have warned that Australia is “missing in action” on its responsibility to address the potentially existential risk posed by climate change, and could alienate itself from major international allies unless it accepts the need to act.
A new report published by the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group – formed by current and former Australian security and policy professionals – details how the worsening impacts of climate change will amplify instability in parts of the world as conflict over diminishing resources, including water and food, become more frequent.
The group said Australia had not been adequately assessing the risks posed by climate change, and that the Morrison government was lagging behind key allies when it came to addressing the emerging national and international security concerns around climate change, and efforts to cut emissions.
“The dangers that climate change impacts pose to international peace and security are real and present,”co-author of the report, and former Australian Defence Force chief, Admiral Chris Barrie AC (retired), said.
“In vulnerable countries, climate-fuelled water and food insecurity have mixed with instability, leading to the collapse of governments and civil wars, as we’ve seen in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.”
“The failure of leadership and inaction by Australian governments have left our nation ill-prepared for the security implications of devastating climate impacts at home and in the Asia Pacific, the highest-risk region in the world.”
“We must stop pretending to act by diverting attention to the symptoms of climate change, and start addressing the fundamental causes, primarily by rapidly decarbonising the economy,” Barrie added.
The report, written by a number of former senior defence personnel and international security experts, said it was already generally accepted in the security community that climate change could pose an ‘existential’ risk to some countries, but Australia had not undertaken appropriate assessments of future risks.
“The impacts of 3°C of warming will likely be existential for some nations and peoples,” the report says.
“Existential risk is understood as an adverse outcome that could curtail sustainable development and threaten the very sovereign existence of communities and states alike. All current members of the UN Security Council recognise that climate change poses an existential threat to human civilisation.”
“Climate is also an urgent strategic priority. Australia is falling behind its allies, and is failing in its responsibilities as a global citizen, as a major strategic defence ally, and to its own people.”
The report found that already observed impacts of climate change in Australia were contributing to a more precarious international security environment – including the impacts of drought which was diminishing Australia’s capacity to supply food into the Asia Pacific region.
It also said that Australia was ill-prepared to respond to predicted threats, including extreme bushfire seasons and heatwaves, extreme drought, and degradation of Australia’s agricultural capacity.
It also pointed to the increasing severity of bushfires, which were directly placing pressure on the resources of Australia’s defence forces, including the damaging 2019-20 bushfire season which prompted the deployment of military personnel to assist with response efforts.
“Climate impacts on agriculture have the potential to significantly threaten food production in Australia,” Barrie said.
“Australia’s supply chains are precarious, being a distant island in a hyper-connected global economy.”
“In a global emergency where supply chains are disrupted, domestic oil supplies would last only weeks. If that coincided with extreme climatic impacts, as may well occur, civilian and military capacity to provide disaster relief would be severely compromised.”
The report sets out a recommend ‘climate-security risk action plan’ for Australia, which includes the formation of a dedicated Office of Climate Threat Intelligence to advise governments on climate risks.
On Wednesday, federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese told parliament that Labor accepted that climate change was a matter of national and international security, and would look to incorporate it in security partnerships – including those with the United States, should Labor form government.
“Climate change remains beyond this Government’s grasp,” Albanese said. “A cooperative approach on climate change would allow us to work together, to strengthen our engagement with all countries of the Indo-Pacific who equally share this challenge.”
“On coming to office, I will make comprehensive co-operation on climate change a hallmark of Alliance co-operation,” Albanese added.