New Zealand Defence not turning its back on climate change

Can good intentions turn into positive action for the Pacific region?

Michael Thomas, Anthony Bergin

Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, The Pacific

27 December 2018

A new report on climate change from the New Zealand Defence Force highlights that the country is taking the threat seriously, but falls short of solid steps to address the pressing issues, Michael Thomas and Anthony Bergin write.

If nothing else, the recent New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) report The Climate Crisis: Defence Readiness and Responsibility, reflects the complicated approach by armed forces in grappling with the issue of climate change. It’s an important step forward, but highlights that there’s more to do in terms of committing to concrete actions.

The strategic context for armed forces to address climate change in a meaningful and substantive way has never been clearer, nor more urgent.

From a global vantage, climate change continues largely unabated. Efforts by nations to reduce emissions, post-Paris, have stalled. The Global Carbon Project, arguably the most authoritative source on the matter, published a ‘brutal report’ that emissions will rise by almost three per cent in 2018; culminating in a record release of 37.1 billion tonnes of CO2 from anthropogenic sources and an ominous warning that ‘the peak is not yet in sight’.

In the absence of renewed global commitment, this places warming at ‘dangerous’ levels of between 3.1 – 3.5oC by 2100.

The security implications of such warming are well known. So much so, in fact, that the South Pacific’s key regional body, the Pacific Islands Forum, used the Boe Declaration in September to state that climate change remains ‘the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security, and well-being of the Peoples of the Pacific’.

The New Zealand government has adopted a broad policy approach to addressing climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation policies. Sufficient momentum has been achieved to see this extend into the security realm: the recently minted 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement articulated the clear links between climate change and security.

Anticipating the Boe Declaration, the statement cast climate change as a ‘complex disruptor’ and one of the three key factors shaping the region’s strategic environment.

More on this: We need to shift our thinking when it comes to climate change migration

High amongst the climate security concerns are the usual suspects: sea-level rise, increased temperatures, inundation, salinisation of crops, loss of territory, floods, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, loss of livelihood and infrastructure, and destabilised communities.

Overlooked in the litany of risks, but significant for the South Pacific, remains the threat of more frequent and more severe El Nino events as a result of climate change.

The backdrop, of course, is that Pacific Island nations are disproportionately affected (accounting for 0.04 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions) and least able to afford costly adaptation measures.

The spectre of poor governance—exacerbated by resource scarcity, increased competition, adverse health impacts, and corruption—also looms large in the collective NZDF mindset and recent history of interventions, from Timor-Leste to Bougainville, and Solomon Islands to Tonga. On this point, all indicators point to more humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and ‘stabilisation’ missions by Defence in a climate-altered world.

So, given the strategic imperatives and what would appear a logical extension on the recent discourse, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Climate Crisis report would have a clear strategy and defined series of steps for how the NZDF could proceed.

But after rehashing the strategic context of climate change, the report passes on the opportunity for the NZDF to take conclusive and affirmative steps on addressing climate change. Rather than embedding them as unambiguous ‘to-do’ items, the document devolves into making a series of ‘high-level recommendations’ that come across as optional extras from a policy parking-lot.

More on this: Being an ethical neighbour in a warming region

As a case in point, the language used in the recommendations section is instructive: ‘Defence should start planning … Defence should consider … Defence should work towards … Defence should seek … Defence should explore … Defence should continue working towards … Defence should investigate …’.

It’s a whole lot of ‘Coulda woulda shoulda’ and precious little ‘will’.

As is so often the case with military institutions grappling with climate change, the contrast between the active strategic risk versus passive tactical measures is vast.

This isn’t to suggest that the measures proposed aren’t sensible—they are—instead it’s an argument that they should have already commenced or, as a minimum, be couched in active terms that make it clear that the NZDF will actually be undertaking them with conviction in the very near future.

If not, then it is little wonder that many Pacific Island nations continue to doubt the sincerity of high-level pledges and seek strategic opportunities elsewhere. If—as is seems to be the case in the Strategic Policy Statement—New Zealand is wary of some states encroaching in its backyard, then more affirmative statements on an issue of such vital importance would go a long way to making good on the need to build trust and confidence.

As it happens, the 2019 Pacific Environmental Security Forum (PESF), tentatively scheduled for May 2019 and involving the US Indo-Pacific Command and New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (as well as Defence) is an ideal opportunity to convert the strategic rhetoric into meaningful action.

But on balance The Climate Crisis: Defence Readiness and Responsibility report is to be welcomed. It signals to the New Zealand Armed Forces that climate change is a critical issue for those in uniform. It provides a solid basis to formulate the necessary plans.

In Australia, the Defence department and the Australian Defence Force could take a leaf from their Kiwi neighbours and produce a policy statement on why and how climate change is a threat to national security, and how climate change impacts in areas of the world where Australian troops are operating or may be in the future. To show how serious they are towards addressing the issue, the Australian Defence organisation should establish a full-time senior military leadership position to act as a strategic voice for defence-related climate change issues, including preparedness and capability.

Australia needs to factor in how climate change may impact effectiveness of the ADF and the country’s military facilities in the face of extreme weather, sea level rise and more heat. Defence shouldn’t be the lead agency for managing the national security impacts of climate change. But as the recent New Zealand Defence statement usefully reminds us ADF doctrine, plans, and strategy will need to consider projected climate impacts.

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