Australia's national security blindspot: climate change
Despite committing to invest up to $368 billion on AUKUS submarines in response to China's increasing assertiveness, Australia continues to ignore the huge national security risks and consequences of climate change.
Climate change is already attacking the basics of human existence - weather systems, land availability and food security, and housing. And it is set to get much worse. In the words of retired Australian Defence Force chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, "when the first category five tropical storm goes in over the Hunter Valley in NSW, it will blow the place to smithereens". The United Nations assesses climate change already as a leading cause of displacement. In 2018, there were over 17 million new displacements globally due to climate-related disasters. Within 30 years, this number could easily increase to 200 million. That's one reason why former Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Airforce, John Blackburn AO, argues that "climate change and its impacts will make North Korea look like a minor speck of history".
One of the many significant climate impacts will be on Australia's critical infrastructure. As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, our infrastructure, such as airports, defence bases, power grids, transport networks, hospitals and water supply systems, will become more vulnerable to damage and disruption. This will have serious national security consequences due to loss of essential services, displacement of communities, and disruption of military operations.
Another significant national security impact of climate change is on food and water security. As droughts and floods become more frequent and severe, Australia's agricultural sector will be under increasing pressure, with potentially serious consequences for food security. Regionally and globally, conflicts over food and water will also have serious implications for national security. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that within 30 years, climate change could reduce crop yields in many parts of the world by up to 20%, leading to food shortages, famines and price spikes. Our trade exposure will make us particularly vulnerable.
As climate change drives global and regional migration, Australia will face major climate refugee flows. This will place significant pressure on our immigration system and threaten social cohesion, potentially leading to political instability and social unrest. Up to 1.2 million people in the Pacific Islands region could be displaced by climate change impacts. And to our immediate north, close to 10 million people in Indonesia will be displaced by rising sea levels by 2050 according to the World Bank.
Given the scale and complexity of its impacts, it is clear that climate change is a huge national security threat to Australia. That's why we need to be more front-footed and transparent. We must adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to the links between climate change and national security.
In the words of Chris Barrie, the Government "has no greater duty than to fully assess all the risks to security and be frank about the threats we face as a nation and how to respond. Climate disruption is no exception. Integrity and transparency are two sides of the same coin." In 2022, the Office of National Intelligence, for the first time, conducted and delivered to the government a climate and security risk assessment. But to date, the government hasn't publicly acknowledged the assessment, released a non-classified version, or indicated when or if that will be done. Doing so would be a good start.
Photo credit: Australian Army.