Are Australia’s climate–security risks too hot to handle?

May 4, 2023
Three dices with weather condition symbols on faces.

The Australian government is keen to talk about defence, big submarines, China and national security. And renewable energy, big batteries, electric cars and big hydrogen. But put the two together — security and climate — and an odd thing happens.

When it comes to the biggest threat to the nation, that of climate-related risks to human and regional security, there is a big black hole in the government’s discourse.

When a declassified version of the Defence Security Review (DSR) was released on 24 April, there was a glaring omission. A short chapter on climate change focussed exclusively on domestic climate risks, specifically emergency responses to climate-warming-enhanced extreme events such as bushfires and floods, and why the defence forces should not be amongst the first responders.

But there was hardly a word about the much bigger climate-related security risk across the Indo-Pacific region, or of the government’s mitigation response to those risks.

The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group’s 2021 proposal for a climate and security risk assessment as a first step in dealing with the biggest threat to Australia’s people and to the region was incorporated into Labor’s election policy, and a climate-security risk assessment was ordered from the Office of National intelligence (ONI) soon after Labor won office in May 2022.

ONI’s assessment reportedly focused on the region and did not include domestic risks but, since delivery to the government in late 2022, not a substantial word has been said about it. No declassified version of the ONI assessment has been released, even as a version of the DSR was made public.

The relevant Senate, House of Representatives and Joint Standing Committees of the parliament have not been briefed. In a state of imposed ignorance, how can members of parliament discharge their duties to oversee policy-making and departmental performance in the defence, climate, immigration, intelligence and foreign affairs portfolios?

By the government’s lack of public reaction, it is a reasonable assumption that ONI’s assessment provides a brutal account of the threats, as it needed to do given the evidence. Perhaps Cabinet eyes opened wide with a rush of adrenalin when the penny dropped that climate risks were altogether of a different category than a narrative about solar and wind and batteries, and yes, the expansion of the gas industry.

Did it become clear that ONI’s assessment undermined the government preferred climate narrative and should not see the light of day? A government keen to display its national security credentials promotes a nuclear submarines, AUKUS and China agenda, but the biggest threat of regional climate disruption exists only by its absence, as a void in the middle of the security policy debate.

So what did the ONI report say? A comparable assessment of climate risks is the 2021 climate risk assessment undertaken by the UK’s premier security think-tank, Chatham House. The ONI report would need to be consistent with the Chatham House conclusions, which in essence were that the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the risks are compounding and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades.

The UK assessment said that impacts likely to be locked in for the period 2040–50 unless emissions drastically decline before 2030 — which is very unlikely to happen on current indications — include:

  • A 30% drop in crop yields by 2050, while food demand will be 50% higher;
  • Almost 700 million people a year by 2040 are likely to be exposed to droughts of at least six months’ duration, nearly double the global historic annual average; and
  • Cascading climate impacts will “drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict”.

A recent, landmark report found that the world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40% by the end of this decade. Losing glacial mass, the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau will no longer be able to serve as the water towers of Asia.

India and China, where groundwater levels are already dropping precariously, will face catastrophic water shortages. China is already a net importer of food, with 20% of the global population but only 7% of potable water. The dry subtropics will slowly desertify, including in northern China, Central Asia and the Middle East. Droughts will become more frequent and intense; cyclones and floods more damaging.

With food demand outstripping supply, prices will rise sharply and the poorest and more vulnerable will be most affected, as is the case in East Africa and across the Sahel today. The pattern is familiar: food shortages, riots, starvation, social breakdown, forced displacement, militarisation of the emergency and a growing inability to fund food relief programs or build resilience for an even hotter climate.

The rate of warming is accelerating and so will the rate of sea-level, amplified by crucial polar ice sheets passing their tipping points. Asia is the most vulnerable region in the world for inundation. The lower Mekong rice bowl is already salinating, low-lying Pacific islands will increasingly become non-viable and some of the world’s biggest coastal cities — including Shanghai, Mumbai and Bangkok — are highly vulnerable, as is Bangladesh.

How will all this play out? The analysis is not easy. Physical climate impacts compound and cascade, and their non-linearity makes projections difficult. Translating those physical changes into social and security consequences is an imprecise task; what we do know there will be consequences that virtually no-one will see coming. Here is a sketch of some plausible outcomes:

  • Social crises in which rising food prices as a consequence of growing shortages lead to domestic protests, internal displacement and/or forced migration, social instability and conflict.
  • Severe economic jolts caused by conflict, labor displacement and lower productivity, inundation and destruction of economic infrastructure, and disruption to supply chains, including in the South China Sea.
  • A worsening of extreme and concurrent climate events with impacts beyond the response capacity of national governments; and increasing opportunities for China to lend a helping hand to vulnerable states, especially as Australia’s disaster relief capacity is underfunded and overwhelmed.
  • A further retreat to authoritarian and hyper-nationalist politics, the diminution of instruments of regional cooperation, and increased risks of regional conflict, including over shared water resources from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, encompassing India, Pakistan, China and south-east Asia nations.
  • State instability and failure in both Asia and the Pacific, including in some of the most populous nations, especially those with semi-democratic governments and existing insurgencies either domestic or in neighbouring states.
  • Increasing repressive measures by the state apparatus directed towards peasants, workers and the poor rising up against food and energy shortages, with Australia called upon to protect such “fragile” states by bolstering their repressive capacities.
  • Fracturing of the regional anti-China alliance.
  • Forced displacement crises magnitudes greater than the world has hitherto experienced.

ONI, with its extensive resources, has the capacity to paint a bigger and more complete picture, and it is one that needs to see the light of day in order to understand and mitigate the risks.

If we don’t know what ONI assessed, the Australian people and its economic institutions will plunge into a future dominated by climate-related security risks in a state of ignorance, way past the black hole’s event horizon.

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