Climate change is no longer a matter of dry debate: it’s already a bigger threat to our national security than war and trade tension in our region.
Theresa May’s parting legacy to Britain and the world as she steps down from being prime minister has been to make a legally binding commitment that Britain will reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
That’s a target, to date rejected as madness here, a target that reinforces Britain’s position, under Tory not radical government, as one of the leading nations in taking action against climate change. It’s been so more or less held since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister 40 years ago and took a position in recognising science pointing to global warming, and in considering some of its implications, including threats to the viability of Pacific Island nations and Bangladesh as sea levels rose. Britain has its kooks, conspiracy theorists and climate deniers, even or particularly in Conservative circles, but it has not inhibited determined efforts to face the future.
May has had a terrible time, from her own party, from the British parliament and from the electorate as she has attempted to interpret and implement the referendum wish of a narrow majority of Britain to withdraw from the European Community, on terms as favourable as it can obtain. On Brexit, the topic which has pre-occupied Britain for the past three years, she has finally acknowledged her incapacity to formulate a proposition with which the parliament will agree.
That now looks likely to be a task faced by the erratic and opportunistic Boris Johnson, well out ahead of his Tory rivals in the first ballot for the succession. Among those who wish him well in this enterprise (a number which I doubt will include Ms May) are a good many vociferous climate change deniers. But there has been no great expression of political or electoral outrage at May’s binding her country to serious climate change action more or less as she is walking out the door.
The Australian Labor Party’s commitment to a similar sort of 2050 target at the last election was painted by our prime minister Scott Morrison as likely to seriously damage the Australian economy, not to mention turning over national sovereignty to very loopy and “un-Australian” Greens — people who, according to him, represent an even greater threat to the common weal than fringe parties of the far Australian right. He might be surprised how much Green doctrine about appropriate climate change action is regarded as essentially sound in conservative circles outside of Australia and the United States.
Morrison insists that he was no denier and that he is on board with the need to combat climate change, and to meet Australia’s international commitments to meet its modest 2030 target, even as former prime minister, the late Tony Abbott had suggested that Paris targets be dropped. As we now know, but did not at the election because the figures were withheld, the trend of slowly falling emissions had stopped, and net emissions continue to slowly increase.
As the clear, if narrow winner of the election, Morrison has first dibs at trying to define the meaning of the charge the electorate has given him. Moreover his victory gives him rather more authority over the members of his caucus, who represent virtually every position on the action spectrum, including those who’d prefer that Australia increase rather than reduce its carbon emissions. Morrison could now, if he wanted, stare down some of the deniers, seeking a policy he can take to the 2022 election. He may have no particular appetite to do so. But he may have no choice.
At first glance, he might ask why he would want to go against the grain. Many members of the government have interpreted the Queensland results in particular as a plebiscite on progressing the Adani mine, and on opening new coal-fired power stations.
Bill Shorten, after all, had several times described the election as a referendum on serious climate change action. He had contrasted Labor’s reasonably progressive approach with eight years of brawling within the Liberal Party on the approaches to be taken. Even the most radical coalition approaches involved only modest action. The brawls caused three leadership changes and resulted in virtual policy paralysis, as well as Cabinet ministers involved in energy policy with no obvious belief in the need for one.
That Labor had equivocated over Adani, seeming to say one thing in north Queensland and other things elsewhere around the nation, where folk have not been so impressed with its employment creation potential, or with getting involved with a major coal project, increased Labor’s credibility problems. Labor was punished for hypocrisy and double-talk as much as its failure to adopt the project as one for jobs.
But Morrison does not have complete freedom of action, even politically. First, on all of the evidence, a significant majority of the electorate – one far bigger than the difference between Labor and coalition – believes in man-made climate change, and wants urgent action to combat it. They have thought this for more than a decade and haven’t changed their mind.
Opinion surveys with large samples – and not from the discredited pollsters – show clearly that between 70-80% of Australians consider our climate change responses seriously inadequate. This is supported across the full range of stakeholder groups. Morrison’s genius in making the election about the credibility of Shorten may have muffled this feeling, but he will ignore it at his peril. Indeed the evidence suggests that the rump of deniers, or those wanting only minimal change, is much smaller than has been generally supposed.
The balance of convictions and beliefs out in the electorate, including one’s own constituencies are important political considerations. In this case they expand rather than limit Morrison’s options, but also the pressure to develop a substantive climate and environmental strategy. More than prattling on and squabbling about targets, the government needs plans not only to achieve them, but to make structural changes that enable the transition to a new economy.
There are some economic interests opposed to doing anything very much. But overwhelmingly Australian business and commerce now believe that climate change is a practical reality, that Australia cannot be out of step with the world (or, perhaps worse, in step only with Donald Trump), and that the long-term economic impact of climate change on the economy will be the worse the longer serious action is delayed.
Innovative Australian businesses across sectors are already making profits through “green” investment (biofuels, sustainable energy, waste recycling, farming etc). Many businesses, indeed, see firm action as providing huge opportunities, rather than competitive handicaps, and see market measures to price emissions as inherently more likely to improve Australia’s competitiveness than ad hoc measures responsive to the most clamorous rent seekers. Far from exporting jobs, as some denialists have suggested if Australia seeks to be a leader rather than a reluctant follower, an Australia taking initiatives could be well set to master the transition to a post-carbon economy faster than almost anyone else. That includes economies who have a head start, including Britain, many European countries, and some states of the United States, at local rather than national level.
But the pressure on Morrison to act boldly does not come from a referendum on opinions about the weather. Climate change is proceeding inexorably, regardless of what the Australian population believes or wants. Changes to weather patterns, including a marked increase in severe weather events, are already evident, here as well as in the region. Carbon dioxide levels are increasing relentlessly, and there now appears to be a virtually linear relationship between that and rising average temperatures.
Sea levels are increasing, along with the risks of inundation and changing coastlines, including in Australia.
Climate change, which is often behind war or civil conflict, is by now probably responsible for about a third of the displacement and refugee tides around the world, including in Syria, the Sudan and Northern Africa. The clock is winding down and, sooner rather than later, governments who fail to be in charge of events will be seen as failing in the face of an existential crisis. The evidence is clear: what is the planned response?
Some instruments of government are already moving, regardless of what the political leadership says. They have no choice.
Recently Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat hopeful of getting presidential nomination introduced a bill in the US congress to toughen the US military against future climate change damage, to reduce its own emissions, ultimately to a net zero also by 2030, and to factor into its accounting practices costs imposed by climate change action. Warren, with cabinet experience in the Obama government, is a serious policy wonk, and, in part because that that, her chances of winning the nomination are not high. But she is likely to heavily influence the party’s platform, and, if Trump is defeated, the policy and programs of the new Administration.
In 2018, she said in a recent article outlining her bill, Hurricane Florence ripped through North Carolina, damaging the Camp Lejeune military base. Hurricane Michael tore through the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, leaving airplane hangars that housed fifth-generation aircraft shredded and largely roofless. At Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, floodwaters had swamped more than 100,000 square metres of buildings, forcing military personnel to scramble to save sensitive equipment and munitions. The total cost to repair just three bases? In the billions, she said.
“Climate change is already impacting the way the Pentagon operates — its training, equipment, supply chains, construction, maintenance, and deployments.
“More and more, accomplishing the mission depends on our ability to continue operations in the face of floods, drought, wildfires, and desertification. The changing climate has geopolitical implications, as well.
“It’s what the Pentagon calls a ‘threat multiplier,’ exacerbating the dangers posed by everything from infectious diseases to terrorism. In the Arctic, for example, melting ice has made previously closed sea routes easier to navigate, creating greater chances for competition. and conflict over access to these waters and natural resources. In Southeast Asia, rising seas are forcing thousands of people to migrate from their homes, increasing the risk of ethnic and political strife.
“In short, climate change is real, it is worsening by the day, and it is undermining our military readiness. And instead of meeting this threat head-on, Washington is ignoring it — and making it worse.’’
The American military was the single largest government consumer of energy (as is the Australian military here), and very ACdependent on fossil fuels. It used billions of barrels of fuel a year in war, patrolling and operations, and powering its fixed bases cost about $A 6 billion a year. In some places, such as Afghanistan, it cost the US military the equivalent of $A 150 a litre to transport the fuel needed to sustain operations.
“Time and time again, senior military leaders have warned of the national security challenge that climate change poses. The military is taking steps to become more energy efficient … But nibbling around the edges of the problem is no longer enough — the urgency of the moment demands more. That’s why today I am introducing my Defence Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act to harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change, and to leverage its huge energy footprint as part of our climate solution.”
The impact of climate change on the military, whether in the US or in Australia, involves far more than bases. Increasingly, soldiers, sailors and air force folk are the first port of call for emergency operations against bushfires, floods, droughts and natural disasters. That’s in our own country. But even more so when the disaster is a tsunami in Indonesia, a cyclone in Samoa, or floods in Fiji. And that’s quite apart from warlike operations being disrupted by severe and unexpected weather.
Mike Scrafton, a former defence adviser who later worked in the Victorian department of the environment writes in a Pearls and Irritations column this week (johnmenadue.com) that many politicians are simply not up to the challenges.
“In most of Africa, Asia and South America, and in large sectors in the West, private poverty and the lack of government capital for infrastructure will prevent a rapid transition. The continued pumping of dangerous additional volumes of greenhouse gases is unavoidable.
“Securing the lives, property, and welfare of Australian citizens is the highest priority of government.
“Previously this has meant defence against external enemies. The inevitability of calamitous global warming now means resilience in face of global warming is more important than defence spending in case of a war that might not happen.
“Shelters from scorching heat, and defences against floods, bushfires, droughts, and violent storms are more important than tanks and missiles. More dispersed and agile medical services, and vastly enhanced and equipped emergency and disaster response services are a higher priority than fighter jets and frigates. More reliable and sustainable supplies of water, food, and energy and more resilient urban and rural population centres are needed than more bombers and submarines. The old, young, frail, poor, and infirm face far greater danger from extreme climate events.”
“Without concerted and purposeful government action many more Australians are likely to perish, or lose property, or suffered seriously degraded standards of living because of global warming rather than war. To prepare and protect Australia’s entire population against the worst consequences of the current and unavoidable threat a large amount of Defence funding should be redirected toward the real national security issue.’’
This week I attended a conference at which some of the national security consequences of climate change were discussed. The military do not have the luxury of being able to ignore uncomfortable realities that politicians try to dodge. And no one knows better the principle that tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat, just as strategy without tactics is the slowest path to victory.
The practical impacts of climate change are already with us, having to be dealt with whether or not one gets leadership or planning, or resources, from our politicians.
Here, as well as in some other countries, that leadership has frequently been absent, and the nation is underprepared for the transition and worse off as a result. There may not be time to wait for Messiahs. We will simply have to conscript the ones we have got. But they may need more than a nudge from the community, from the scientific and research establishments and from business and all sectors with an interest in the future of Australia, its people, and that of the world.
Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times