CHRISTIAN DOWNIE. The security threat from climate change

Feb 10, 2017

The Turnbull Government’s decision to continue to back coal is not just bad economics, it also makes no sense from a national security perspective as the worsening impacts of climate change threaten international stability.  

Is climate change a national security threat?

Over the last decade nations around the world, including our key allies, have begun to focus on the growing security risks posed by climate change.

In the US, the Pentagon has issued a series of reports identifying climate change as an immediate threat that must be addressed.

In the UK there has been growing recognition that the risks posed by climate change must be incorporated into defence planning

And in Australia, multiple reports over the years have come to the same conclusion. That is, that climate change is a legitimate national security threat that must be taken seriously.

What are the risks?

The reason for this is simple. As global temperatures spin out of control, climate change acts as what has been termed a ‘threat multiplier’, or to put it more simply, climate change makes things worse; indeed much worse.

Take water security as an example. Fresh water is crucial to the survival of all nations. Yet around the world communities are struggling to secure enough fresh water. In fact around 98% of water on the planet is salty, only 2% is fresh and can be used for drinking, farming and washing.

Climate change will make these struggles harder. For example, warming causes polar ice melt into the sea, which turns fresh water into salt water. But perhaps more importantly, warming also causes shifting rainfall patterns. The IPCC special report on climate change adaptation estimates that around one billion people in dry regions may face increasing water scarcity.

Food security is another example. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events it will have adverse impacts on our capacity to secure food. More droughts, fires and floods, for example, will destroy crops and critical farming infrastructure.

It is not just food and water. Energy will also be affected. Extreme weather events are likely to lead to disruption in global energy markets and the destruction of critical energy infrastructure, for example, affecting electricity generation.

Indeed it was more than a decade ago that the International Energy Agency called for countries to “start undertaking a systematic review of the energy security implications of their climate policy initiatives and vice versa.”

Of course all these risks, and there are many more, will increase instability around the world, especially in our region. Extreme weather events, lack of water, food, and other basic necessities will lead to increased conflict and refugee flows.

This was precisely the conclusion reached the by the Pentagon in 2015 when it stated “that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

Our response

In the face of all these risks, which are costly and forever mounting, the easiest and cheapest thing to do would be to reduce our emissions, and encourage other nations to do the same.

If defence planners around the world now recognise the risks posed by climate change, it is beyond belief that our political leaders look the other way.

And yet if the Turnbull Government’s behaviour over the last few weeks is anything to go by the governments plan is to put more carbon into the atmosphere not less. As others have pointed out, the decision to continue to support coal is bad economics. But it also makes no sense from a national security perspective.

More carbon in the atmosphere equals less security. A simple equation that even the most simple of political leaders should understand.

But the longer they don’t, and the longer our leaders frustrate the transition toward cleaner energy, the greater the threat to our water security, food security, energy security; and ultimately our national security.

Christian Downie is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University.

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