Defence strategy, climate change and the need for AUKUS in 2050

Feb 27, 2023
Australia, Uk and USA AUKUS alliance countries flags paint over on wooden dice.

The AUKUS deal for nuclear submarines by 2050 indicates that government has little grasp of the likely chaotic state of the world after current trajectories on climate and environmental change have played out for the next 27 years. In turn this engenders insecurity over their knowledge and ability to deliver appropriate policies on these threats.

As society and its problems become more complex, detailed interaction between government silos is vital to avoid conflict between policies. There has to be concern that the soon to be released Defensive Strategic Review will have failed to address this challenge.

In the words of the Prime Minister “The Defence Strategic Review will help prepare Australia to effectively respond to the changing regional and global strategic environment and ensure Defence’s capability and structure is fit for purpose and delivers the greatest return on investment.”

Then what is “the changing regional and global strategic environment within the purview of Defence”? It is much wider than that currently accepted.

This article will explain why defence spending is likely to reduce progressively over the next few decades due to a confluence of costly threats to the world and consequently to Australia. Nations will give attention to the security of their own bailiwick, our life support system the environment.

These interrelated threats are climate change, loss of biodiversity and ecological services, food insecurity, increasing pollution and chemical contamination of air, food, soil and water, human overpopulation competing for diminishing resources, increasing epidemics and the failure of governments to understand and address them.

A moment’s consideration of this list will bring the realisation that many will affect Defence capability and need to be considered in the Review.

This is the view of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group lead by Admiral Chris Barrie AC. They contend that the existential nature of the climate change threat requires a fundamental reframing of Australia’s defence and security strategy, away from traditional nation state geopolitics, to focus on unprecedented global cooperation rather than conflict. The responsibility lies with all G20 nations who are creating the majority of global emissions, and particularly China and the USA.

Currently we are deluding ourselves if we believe we are sufficiently mitigating green house emissions. These are rising steadily and most countries will miss their commitments to their 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions; many including Indonesia and China are opening new coal mines, and others including Australia and the US are expanding their gas production demonstrating a continuing failure to understand the urgency of the problem. It is becoming apparent that Australia may not even meet its meagre 2030 reduction target of 43 %.

World temperatures rises of 2-3 degrees are likely by the end of the century or before. Environmental devastation is already before our eyes and is accelerating together with its costs which will erode national budgets and, as the Leaders note, “hard choices will have to be made in order to shape the economic environment to prioritise effective climate mitigation and resilience”.

However climate mitigation depends on cooperation and action by all nations and whilst it is the main cause of our environmental deterioration, there are other causes in Australia which we can address such as land clearing, land management and conservation of water resources. Rising temperature, storms and drought will greatly impair our ability to grow food, control local environments and conserve water. This will require obligatory additional expenditure if we are to survive on this continent.

Many developing countries are already beginning to disintegrate from starvation, massive displacements of their people and local conflict within and between countries over water resources. The costs to these countries already consume a greater proportion of their meagre budget than in developed countries.

Within Australia it is not just a matter of prioritising climate and environmental action as suggested by the Leaders. Within a shrinking national budget we have to prioritise basic requirements of living, health social services and housing by reforming the economy ourselves or by default allowing climate change damage to impose it on us.

I confess that my resolve to work between my own silos of knowledge and that of other disciplines failed with Defence! It has now been a revelation to read the evidence from many experts including those in the Pearls and Irritations Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

Many opinions are constrained in their thinking but one states the Review must not confine itself to “more of the same” but address a new world.

Others rightly express the view that the time line of the Review is too short and should have been a whole of government exercise.

Whilst much of the implementation of the Defence Strategy Review might be implemented by 2050 massive defence expenditure on eight submarines at current cost of $200 billion is a pig in the poke. Will any of the 3 AUKUS nations remain interested in this operation in the likely world chaos of 2050?

A salient question will be the stability of the 3 AUKUS partners. Their citizens will want health and social services ahead of nebulous defence security; the UK with disintegrating health and other services and with Brexit which has spurned its most crucial avenue of international cooperation; the US with a disintegrating political system and inadequately managing climate and environmental calamities. And indeed what of Australia; will we tolerate massive defence expenditure at the sacrifice of valued health and social services?

And China? The involvement of a large and growing middle class in a recent Covid revolt sufficient to produce a backwards step from President Xi may lead China to increasingly avoid expenditure on defence in favour of helping the lives of its citizens.

The government has decided to not publish the many expert submissions to the Strategy. This demonstrates their insecurity on defence and also their failure to understand the expected trajectory of environmental demise and therefore deliver more effective climate change policies.


Read the Defence Strategic Review series of articles:

Defence Strategic Review – Read all about it

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