A threatening climate

How Australia’s Defence force can create a winning strategy against climate change and security threats

Anthony Bergin

Environment & energy, National security | Australia

28 September 2017

The unfolding natural disasters of a warming world are a stark reminder that climate change comes with significant security implications, Anthony Bergin writes.

Australia’s Senate inquiry into the implications of climate change for the country’s national security couldn’t be better timed.

For some time now security experts have been pointing out the enormous security threats posed by a warming world, such as more extreme heat waves, prolonged droughts, catastrophic wildfires, and mass floodings.

The horrifying scenes in the US with mega-storms Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Irma hitting in quick succession are just a glimpse of what we’ll be seeing at a global level. Recovery from Harvey alone, according to the Texas governor, will cost at least $225 billion.

Conditions in Puerto Rico remain dire with 3.4 million people without power and water and short of food after Hurricane Maria hit the island. Last month mudslides and flooding left more than 1,000 people dead in Sierra Leone.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. As Katharine Hayhoe, a director of Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center said: “If there’s one overarching theme that connects almost every way that climate change impacts us, it’s that climate change takes a risk that already exists and enhances it. It’s not inventing something new. It’s taking something that we’ve already dealt with before, but giving it that extra oomph that makes it a bigger problem.”

More on this: Managing climate risk | John Hewson

This applies, to take just one example, to the higher rates of mosquito-borne diseases due to hotter global temperatures and climate-related flooding.

One of the worst US wildfire seasons in years has ignited blazes across the western US. As I write, there are more than 100 active wildfires and at least 41 uncontained large blazes. A staggering amount of land has burned so far in the current US fire season — more than eight million acres, an area larger than the whole of Belgium –  along with more than 500 homes and other structures.

The prognosis for summer Arctic sea-ice loss over the next few decades is worse than it was 125,000 years ago during the last interglacial period, despite the fact that temperatures were higher then. This disappearing sea ice has generated an icy chess game of political contests over terms of access to the area for resources and shipping routes.

An estimated 40 million people in South Asia have recently been affected after massive floods devastated the region. Entire villages across Bangladesh (25 per cent of that country is less than three feet above sea level), India and Nepal have been submerged since the floods began in mid-August.

In Bangladesh, more than eight million people have been affected. It’s the region’s worst flood in 40 years, with a metre of rain falling in some areas in the space of a few days. Some 27 million people are predicted to be at risk from sea-level rise in Bangladesh by 2050, with floods increasingly destroying homes, croplands and damaging infrastructure.

More on this: Disaster needs a science policy | Rajib Shaw

In January this year US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, pointed out that climate change is a threat to US interests abroad and the Pentagon’s assets everywhere. In written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said that it was incumbent on the US military to consider how changes like open-water routes in the thawing Arctic and droughts in global trouble spots can pose challenges for troops and defence planners. “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning,” he wrote.

In my submission to the Australian Senate’s inquiry on climate security, I suggested that climate impacts will increase demands on the Australian Defence Force for disaster aid (the Indo-Pacific is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions of the world), including at home, as we saw with Cyclone Debbie earlier this year.

Climate variability impacts on our military training grounds. Last year’s Defence White Paper highlighted these risks to military infrastructure, noting that: “Climate change will also place pressure on the Defence estate, with sea level rises having implications for Navy bases and more extreme weather events more frequently putting facilities at risk of damage.” Sea level rise vulnerabilities to infrastructure will reduce the Australian Defence Force’s ability to generate and sustain military readiness.

The White Paper identified climate change as a contributor to state fragility. It was one of “six key drivers” in the “development of Australia’s security environment to 2035.” In the same document, climate change was identified as a “major challenge for countries in Australia’s immediate region.”

More on this: Policy Forum Pod: Australia's Defence White Paper - good, bad, or just wrong?

Last September, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) considered the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) baseline for likely increases in extreme weather events in the decades ahead. The NIC noted that: “Such events may occur at different rates of frequency, intensity, and location compared to historical patterns, and lack of preparedness for those changes—such as weather-related disasters, drought, famine, supply chain breakdown, or damage to infrastructure—may prove a primary cause of disruption.”

As a nation, Australia needs to invest in resilient infrastructure so our communities are able to withstand, respond to and recover from the potentially devastating impact of natural disasters. But, despite this, there is still no requirement for government or the private sector to consider resilience when making investment decisions.

At the same time, Defence and Australia’s security agencies need to have more regular access to the climate science community to learn the latest science, so they’re up to date on climate risks. This can be done through workshops and focus groups on specific issues, such as sea-level rise impacts on ports, increased bushfire, flood and storm risks to Defence bases, and changes in sea states as a result of climate change. This should help inform Defence doctrine and plans to factor in projected climate impacts.

Defence should appoint a climate advisor: a senior military leader who would act as a strategic voice for climate change national security issues, including preparedness and capability.

Finally, Defence should develop a climate change plan. This would be a long-term strategy for developing ADF responses to climate change needs, based on an analysis of the political, strategic, financial, and capability risks and opportunities climate change presents to the ADF business.

To ignore the devastation brought by climate change will just leave us insecure: climate change should be incorporated into every aspect of Australian military training and preparedness.

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