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

28 January 2020

With extreme weather events becoming more frequent, the countries of the region are beginning to co-operate to mitigate disasters. Early warning and accurate risk assessment must be the core of their outlook, Paul Barnes writes.

The Wilson Center in Washington DC recently hosted a workshop on the need and benefits of improving early warning for ‘Climate Security Risk’ in the Pacific. Hosted by the Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, discussions focused predominantly on the Compact of Free Association Pacific Island nations but held strong relevance to all Pacific Island economies.

The importance of early warning in the case of climate threats to Australia may seem obvious. It’s centrality to national security is identified in Section 3.6 of the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper. The ability to anticipate the onset and impacts of disturbances and their severity, detailed in this section of the White Paper, underpins national defence, disaster management, and national resilience goals.

Anticipating and mitigating the full impacts of natural disasters regionally or locally is often not easily achieved through global compacts or treaty instruments. Recently published studies have emphasised the need to broaden the scope of impact assessment from climate and weather-related losses to include damage to culture, traditions, and heritage, as well as loss of economic status.

More on this: With crisis comes opportunity

The United Nations established The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage in 2013 as a means for evaluating and exploring ways of dealing with climate-related harm to people, property, and nature.

That mechanism was up for review at the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Madrid.

Many interesting issues were raised during the Washington workshop and a number resonated with Australia’s current and future challenges. The first was recognition that there are opportunities for ‘great power cooperation’ rather than conflict across the Indo-Pacific.

A logical focus for such cooperation could be a reinvigorated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with overt emphases that include humanitarian assistance and disaster management – encompassing a role for national Coast Guards, who could be cooperating on a range of supportive tasks including search and rescue.

The relevance of Coast Guards to maritime security and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific has been recently noted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and seems a very viable means to project a collective capability to enhance disaster risk reduction across the region. Collective action on disaster management may address some views that there is a lack of common purpose and clarity of roles among proposed QUAD members.

The usefulness of multilateral treaties for humanitarian assistance and disaster management was also tabled in Washington. The viability of completing a treaty on Disaster Preparedness and Relief Cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia was examined in 2013 and was generally seen as a viable step forward then and makes even more sense now. It would be a positive and purposeful inclusion as a future activity of QUAD aligned economies.

More on this: Transboundary climate collaboration

A recent tri-lateral agreement between United States, Japan, and Australia aimed at enhancing investment in projects that drive economic growth, create opportunities, and foster a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific is important to note. The degree to which anticipating the losses and effects of climate and weather variability could be included in the implementation of this treaty is yet to be tested, but should be.

Another emphasis was on mixing inter-disciplinary science and diplomacy in disaster risk reduction. In separate commentary, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Director-General of the Pacific Community, recently emphasised the importance of science as a key to solving Pacific climate change challenges.

Central to this issue at the Washington workshop was discussion of the use of predictability tools and foresight capabilities focusing on extreme weather and regional climate impacts. This element should not be conflated with meteorological forecasts but recognised as being part of a wider lens for anticipating needs based on hazards and known local and regional vulnerability.

An example of applied science of great relevance to early warning is the development of threat and vulnerability indices. Participants in the 1994 UN Barbados Programme of Action conference called for the development of vulnerability indices and other indicators to provide standardised methods for characterising local vulnerability and resilience measures. They wanted a measure that could reflect the baseline status of a small developing island state and integrate ecological fragility with other measures of vulnerability. The convergence of such information on local and regional vulnerability was seen as useful to enhance decision-making capacities for disaster risk reduction.

A working prototype of such an index, specific to Pacific Communities, emphasising methods for characterising a range of environmental vulnerability factors, was completed in 2004. However, further development to include more detail on social and economic factors and impacts from climate change was identified as needed, as well as sustained access to relevant data and sustained ongoing external funding. Subsequently, implementation of the tool did not occur.

Tools like vulnerability indices are critical. They underpin a range of early warning and decision support capabilities. They enable adaptation to a range of known and emergent impacts from climate change and also help to inform damage assessment.

Indo-Pacific economies would do well to revisit the usefulness of such tools. Support for reinvigorating and adding to this deep body of work is something Australia’s scientific communities should also contribute to and promote.

Australia’s standing is also likely to benefit from collaborating with Pacific economies on climate adaptation efforts.

A lingering thought is of the need to recognise that significant and uncomfortable change – resulting in a range of new environmental ‘normals’ – may be coming faster than Indo-Pacific economies would prefer. These are changes for which Australia and its neighbours need to be ready.

Australia is already experiencing a protracted period of dangerously high temperatures this summer, along with an unprecedented fire catastrophe that has caused devastation across vast areas. The need for support for prevention and recovery in the Indo-Pacific is unlikely to be reduced into the near future.

While the terms of reference of the mooted royal commission into the ongoing fire disaster are not yet decided, it is logical that coverage would include assuring readiness to respond to significant catastrophic events, the effectiveness of disaster risk reduction efforts in addition to response management capabilities and capacities, and this would be welcome.

Australia needs to commit to new strategies, including evaluating vulnerability, that enable the anticipation of the onset of weather/climate-driven emergencies and to inform future investments for enhancing national resilience, or risk grave consequences into the future.

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