MIKE SCRAFTON. The new national security – protection from global warming

Jun 11, 2019

Ian Dunlop has argued persuasively that global warming now represents an emergency situation ‘akin to wartime’. The alarmingly obstinate year-on-year increase in the levels of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere has brought this about and will ensure the IPCC prediction that ‘[G]lobal warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate’ is exceeded. The disaster of the Anthropocene is now unavoidable. The world has passed a tipping point and national security now means defence against the consequences of global warming.

Australian governments must recognise the priority is no longer mitigation of emissions. The best governments can now do is maximise the push for ways to safeguard communities against the inevitable.

Any transformation to arrest growth in emissions, and then reverse and eliminate them, would be inordinately disruptive, especially if carried out with the required urgency and speed. In the transition period, in the improbable case world leaders concurred on a course of action, the globe will have heated to extremely dangerous levels. But the transformation won’t happen.

The scale of the transformation needed is incomprehensible in complexity and size and the risks enormous. The aggregate investment in infrastructure, facilities, stock, and human capital that supports the existing way of doing things is unimaginable. Production and consumption and the extensive trade and transport systems that they generate operate at local, regional, national and international scales that overlap and interact. The interconnectivity of human activity is so intricate and interdependent that substantive changes are certain to produce unpredictable and undesirable results. Coordination of a global project is not going to happen.

The food that is consumed around the world is produced by techniques that are emissions intensive and distributed by fossil fuel burning modes of transport. Food is preserved by energy guzzling refrigeration and by chemicals produced on an industrial scale. The food supply system cannot be substituted for seamlessly. Establishing alternative low emissions local or national agricultural replacements will mean many food producing nations would see their agricultural sectors collapse and many food importing nations see their needs unmet unless this process was slowly and carefully managed. At best a process of decades, while still emitting.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not just about introducing new technologies and methodologies to substitute for those energy generation, industrial and agricultural production and, distribution processes that contribute significantly to global warming. Convincing the affected populations that they should bear the costs and upheaval during the transition would be crucial.

Nations with easy access to fossil fuels to support industry, transport hubs based on strategic geographic locations, or other economic advantages could see them evaporate leaving enterprises defunct and millions unemployed. Populations would need to accept the risks involved, and to embrace the prospect of a new and unknowable future.

That would be an enormous ask even if the overwhelming majority of people understood climate science and trusted their governments to achieve the task effectively and efficiently, with courage, justice and wisdom. The indications are they don’t. Moreover, populations would need to remain fixed in their determination throughout the transition as their lives became more arduous.

The reality is many politicians cannot accept the overwhelming scientific evidence on global warming or don’t recognise the accompanying implications. Reaching a consensus or even a plurality seems impossible in a world where people still choose to smoke despite knowing they risk cancer, and others only seek to impose their metaphysical theology on the rest. 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.

Here, Ian Dunlop’s war time analogy becomes important. 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.

Defence spending has become a lower priority for Australia than building social and economic resilience. The notion of preparing for a major war is now illogical. A war in the Asia Pacific, which appears to be the strategic scenario behind the massive Defence acquisition program, would leave Australia with a vastly reduced capacity to respond to global warming. However, unlike global warming, war is not inevitable nor is Australian participation if one occurs.

A radical rethink is required of the meaning of government’s obligation to protect its citizens. Without concerted and purposeful government action many more Australians are likely to perish, or lose property, or suffered seriously degraded standards of living because global warming 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.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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