Image: Adm. Chris Barrie (Retd) Former Chief of the Australian Defence Force from Australian Security Leaders Climate Group, Canberra ACT.
Summary of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group’s views in their report released today:
The government and the media have a duty of care to ensure a balanced and transparent focus on security risks, including climate disruption, not the privileging of some threats whilst others are hidden away.
— The government has a duty of care to fully assess and be transparent about security risks to the Australian people.
— The greatest risk is climate disruption, described by both the UN Secretary-General and US Secretary of Defence as “existential”.
— Whilst a great deal of media and political attention is focused on China, new weapon systems and AUKUS, there is at present little to no attention on climate security from either parliament or the commentariat.
— The Office of National Intelligence has, for the first time, conducted a climate and security risk assessment, which was requested by the government and delivered to them in late 2022.
— The government to date has not publicly acknowledged the assessment, released a de-classified version, or indicated when
that will be done.
— Climate risk must be the first priority for the government, whether from security, emissions-reduction policy, budget priority or international relationship perspectives.
“The climate time bomb is ticking” said UN Secretary General António Guterres on 20 March on the release of a new IPCC report which warned that the world is on brink(1) of catastrophic warming. Now that sounds like a threat to global human security that should be at the forefront of any government’s concerns.
Yet the recent commentary and discussion on the AUKUS agreement and purported imminent war with China is dominating the debate about security threats to Australia and regional stability. The intense focus on China has been justified as the need for the Australian people to be fully informed of threats to the nation. But the same rationale has not been applied to the security threat of climate change, a far greater risk, the response to which will be far more costly and extensive.
Until a few months ago, the climate-change security threat had never been comprehensively assessed by any Australian government, abrogating the government’s primary responsibility to “protect the people”.
But in late 2022, an Office of National Intelligence (ONI) initial climate risk assessment — an election promise of the Albanese government — was distributed to members of the federal cabinet. It addressed external but not domestic climate threats. Since then there has been no government response to, or public communication of, the assessment’s findings.
Could we be shocked by what the intelligence community has told the government? Was the government itself shocked by what it was told? Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s comment last December to the National Press Club that “climate change is creating massive movements of people that may become unmanageable” suggests that may be so.(2)
We won’t know the answers until a declassified version is released, just as the government has promised with the Defence Security Review.(3)
Facing existential climate risks, a government can only lead, and the community can only fully participate in overcoming the threat, if the government is open and transparent about the magnitude of that threat.
There needs to be a clear-headed security analysis of our region, including an assessment of the extreme vulnerability of both China and India to climate-disruption- driven escalating water crises. The balance of all security risks must be assessed, including recognising that what China does or does not do will not drown small island states, nor desertify the dry subtropics, nor drive a global decline in crop yields, kill the Barrier Reef, salinate Kakadu or force the displacement of tens of millions of people. But a hotter climate will, probably in significant measure even before a full fleet of nuclear submarines has been commissioned in the 2040s.
The furore about China and imminent war is being stoked by a group of national security influencers, several with links to institutions who receive a benefit from the arms industry. But barely a word has been said by those influencers recognising that climate disruption, not China, is the greatest threat to global, regional and human security. Talking loudly about the China threat whilst lips are sealed on climate threats is a catastrophic and irresponsible failure in security analysis.
3 theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/feb/22/anthony-albanese-to-flag-additional-military-investment- ahead-of-landmark-defence-review
A declassified version of the climate risk assessment should be released by the Albanese government as a matter of urgency, in part because the nation is in the middle of an intense conversation about security and defence.
National security is not an either/or argument. Great power contestation and debilitating climate change can occur at the same time, with a conflation of events that can threaten many. It is a mistake to think we can apply a slow piecemeal approach to the potential risk of one threat and then move onto the next. Indeed, the national security apparatus must be transparent about the wider range of threats and our Nation’s vulnerabilities to compounding and interlinked crises.
The government should be upfront with the electorate on the full range of climate risks. The rhetoric by commentators and politicians on potential war with China has been justified as the need for the Australian people to be fully informed of threats to the nation. With other security threats, Australian governments have been transparent, making a point of sharing with the community their knowledge to gain support for action; for example cyber security, Covid, North Korea and more. But the same rationale has not been applied to the security threat of climate change, which is a far greater risk.
It is extraordinary that with climate change, the greatest threat of all, we see no such transparency. There is no reason to make climate disruption an exception.
With existential climate risks, the community can fully participate in actions to overcome the threat only if the government is transparent about the magnitude of that threat and builds community support for action. Australian governments have learned from bitter experience that making sure that vulnerable communities are fully informed in advance, with practical actions and options,
is the key to being prepared for natural emergency threats which are now exacerbated by climate warming.
Experiences with pandemics, bushfires and floods show that underestimating or downplaying the size and risks of future events leads to bad outcomes, and government responses being overwhelmed.
The government needs to manage the risk of brand damage if it sits on serious advice and knowledge about risks to the security and health of Australians, and fails to disclose and act upon that advice, as was the case with Robodebt and the previous government.
Existential Climate Risks
Climate change now presents a grave, and potentially existential, threat to society and human security. Today, unimaginable new climate extremes confront us: record-breaking droughts and floods, cruel heatwaves, unstoppable bushfires, broken infrastructure, and coastal inundation. Worse is to come.
In vulnerable countries, governments have collapsed and civil wars have erupted, forcefully displacing millions of people looking for a safe haven.
Instability is on the march. A new insecurity shadows our lives and the relations between nations.
Experts increasingly affirm that climate is an existential threat to human civilisation, a fact UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres repeatedly emphasises, and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III along with Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen have noted.(4)
The recent World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2023 listed the six greatest risks over the next ten-year period as: the failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate- change adaptation, natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, large-scale involuntary migration, and natural resource crises.(5)
Policies enacted as a result of national emission-reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement will result in climate warming (6) of around 3°C by 2100 and perhaps more. The impacts of 3°C of warming willlikely be existential for some nations and peoples, where existential risk is understood as an adverse outcome that could curtail sustainable development and threaten the very sovereign existence of communities and states alike.
ASLCG’s 2021 report, Missing in Action, explored whether the security consequences of climate disruption could include a billion displaced people.(7) The 2018 Global Catastrophic Risks report says that even for 2°C of warming more than a billion people may need to be relocated.(8) Another study from 2020 found that warming of 2°C could provide more than 500 million people additional incentive to emigrate, whilst warming of 3°C could provide additional incentive-to-emigrate to well over a billion people.(9) This is one climate issue amongst many the government must face publicly and with the best analysis available.
Given the extent of the risks associated with climate change, the likelihood is the government was told some uncomfortable things in its recent risk assessment prepared by the Office of National Intelligence. A good indication of this can be seen in the UK’s most comprehensive climate-security risk assessment done two years ago by one of the UK’s leading think tanks, Chatham House. This assessment concluded that the risks are compounding, and “without immediate action the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades”, especially for food security. It concluded that we are heading to warming which will “drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict”.(10)
- 4 defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2582828/secretary-austin-remarks-at-climate-change- summit; skynews.com.au/business/energy/climate-change-an-existential-threat-to-pacific-island-nations/ video/843e7e658396be172d2ae0556fefe944
- 5 weforum.org/reports/global-risks-report-2023/
- 6 washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/03/20/climate-change-ipcc-report-15
- 7 aslcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ASLCG_MIA_Report.pdf
- 8 globalchallenges.org/initiatives/analysis-research/reports/
- 9 Chen, M and Caldeira, K, 2020, ‘Climate change as an incentive for future human migration’,
Earth Syst. Dyn., vol. 11, pp. 875–883.
- 10 chathamhouse.org/2021/09/climate-change-risk-assessment-2021