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Climate change matters to Defence and has a direct effect on warfighting. Inaction threatens to undermine Defence’s contribution to Pacific Step-Up initiatives and puts us at a competitive disadvantage in developing regional influence and power projection.

In comparison to other Western nations, Australia is severely underperforming[1] in its responsibilities towards climate change. Australia’s recent climate action has failed to limit global warming, and risks falling short of ‘net zero’ goals[2], despite being previously celebrated[3] at climate conferences. Climate change matters to Defence and has a direct effect on warfighting. Militaries are a substantial emitter[4] of greenhouse gases. While Defence’s effects are important to global security, international climate agreements don’t place responsibility on them to report and reduce emissions where possible. Inaction threatens to undermine Defence’s contribution to Pacific Step-Up initiatives, and puts us at a competitive disadvantage in developing regional influence and power projection. It’s severely impacting our relationships[5] with South-West Pacific nations that are essential to power projection and threatens to reduce military effectiveness and capability. Additionally, inaction may force us to stretch our resources even thinner in responding to increasing domestic and regional disasters, as well as increasing climate refugees[6] seeking asylum in Australia. In response, the ADF can take advantage of its existing innovation culture and contribute to broader climate diplomacy indirectly.

Climate Effects on the Region & Defence

Climate change brings a greater frequency of extreme weather events, including natural disasters, extreme temperatures and rising sea levels[7]. Domestically, we are already seeing these effects through increased flooding and bushfires[8]. Globally, climate change threatens to overwhelm existing security issues and act as a flashpoint[9] for conflict. Overall, climate change is degrading stability and increasing complexity in Defence and HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) environments. This is having a major effect on our region, as archipelagic nations are seeing their whole landmass at risk of falling beneath rising sea levels, threatening inhabitability[10]. If this occurs, the inhabitants of these archipelagic nations will become climate refugees, forced to find a new home[11]. For Defence, there has already been an upwards trend[12] of HADR involvement domestically and regionally. Any further workload would increase operational tempo and workload on the ADF and risk a reduction in preparedness[13] for combat operations.

Challenges

Defence & Our National Interests

Australia’s emphasis on the ‘Pacific Step-Up’ highlights the strategic importance of shaping and influencing the near region. In recent white papers and the Defence Strategic Update, there is regular mention of remaining the security partner of choice for our neighbours within the region. For Australia and the ADF, this has resulted in consistent deployments of naval support and training to smaller South West Pacific neighbours. This not only ensures our national influence is supportive of the rules-based global order promoted by the West, but also maintains strong relationships and interoperability with regional neighbours that will prove invaluable in any future conflict. Contrary to these efforts, Australia’s relatively poor climate goals and performance put Pacific nations offside, and are at odds with our national strategic goals. Recent Pacific climate forums have seen regional leaders call climate change an ‘existential threat’[14] to island nations, and accuse Australia[15] of not doing enough. Maintaining these relationships requires addressing climate change and being a leader in the region[16]. Australia’s engagement on climate change will have a significant influence on diplomatic and military relations. Not only do we have an ethical responsibility towards our neighbours as a large and developed nation, but we would rely on these partners for forward basing and support in a future conflict. Climate change threatens to nullify practically all investment and diplomatic ‘step-up’, especially when we are likely to need them most.

Chinese Exploitation & Increased Presence

China’s presence in the region has increased dramatically, competing with Australia for influence in the region, and being a security partner of these nations. Their investments through their Belt & Road Initiative aim to develop relationships and gain leverage for operations out of the region. While they remain the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, China has seen less pressure[17] from these nations, in contrast to criticism towards Australia. Climate inaction both reduces Australia's influence and integrity in the region and increases the vulnerability of these nations to influence from competitors. Therefore, it enables China to create a wedge between Australia and our Pacific neighbours, highlighting our inaction and exploiting our shortfalls to increase their influence.

Opportunities for Strategic Advantage

Whilst its effects may impact Australia and the South West Pacific region, climate change also offers opportunities for strategic advantage. Our allies, including the UK MoD[18], US DoD[19], and the NZ MoD[20], have released strategic documents discussing how they will adapt to the challenge of climate change and use emerging ‘green’ technologies. If Defence follows our allies, Australia could better position itself as a diplomatic leader and example in how sustainability can improve a defence force's ability to operate and fight wars. This will provide diplomatic leverage and also build protection against criticism attempting to degrade our reputation. Additionally, by investing in emerging green technologies and adopting them early on, the ADF would have a strategic advantage over competitors in the region and be prepared for a more adverse environment before others.

Using renewable energy, such as solar installations, for on-base electricity would reduce the amount of fuel that needs to be transported to bases, and provide a redundancy in a situation where fuel convoys cannot reach them. This could reduce the costs of operation at main and forward operating bases, as well as casualties related to fuel convoy protection[21]. Additionally, electric or even hybrid vehicles, such as the new ‘ePMV’ electric Bushmaster [22], reduce reliance on fuel, reduce emissions, and also offer tactical advantages (including quieter movement in urban scenarios, where stealth and closer engagements are required).

Organisational change on responses to climate events would also ensure that the ADF’s contribution to domestic support operations does not significantly impact its warfighting capability. A focus on cooperation between the ADF and other emergency agencies would increase preparedness for increased load on Defence resources. Potentially, this could be through increasing the authority of non-Defence organisations (such as the National Recovery and Resilience Agency or Emergency Management Australia) in domestic disaster response efforts. Another option would be establishing specialist Defence personnel and units trained in emergency response.

Conclusion

Climate change has historically been seen as separate to traditional national security issues. However, climate effects in the South-West Pacific region are blurring the divide[23]. These pose a national security threat to Australia through the stability of the region and national capacity to respond. Additionally, climate inaction puts us at a disadvantage in shaping and influencing our near region, and developing relationships that will benefit us in future conflict. To mitigate this, there needs to be greater institutional acknowledgement and a reorientation of climate action with strategic intent.

Footnotes

1 Climate Change Performance Indicator (CCPI) – Australia, viewed 2022-11-14, https://ccpi.org/country/aus/

2 Climate Crisis Advisory Group, 2021, The Final Warning Bell, PDF, viewed 2022-11-14, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/60ccae658553d102459d11ed/t/61275…

3 Michael Slezak, 2021, news article, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-01/australia-climate-change-reputat…

4 Dr Stuart Parkinson, 2020, The carbon boot-print of the military, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), article, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/carbon-boot-print-military-0

5 Melissa Clarke, 2019, Pacific leaders, Australia agree to disagree about action on climate change, news article Australian Broadcasting Corporation, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-15/no-endorsements-come-out-of-tuva…

6 The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2022, Climate change and disaster displacement, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/climate-change-and-disasters.html

7 The United Nations, 2021, Climate and weather related disasters surge five-fold over 50 years, but early warning saves lives, WMO report, viewed 2022-11-14, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/09/1098662

8 Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, Natural hazards and climate change, Australian Federal Government, National Emergency Management Agency, viewed 2022-11-14, https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/natural-hazards-and-climate-cha…

9 United Nations Environment Programme, Climate change and security risks, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/disasters-conflicts/what-we-do/disa…

10 E Jones Parry, 2007, The Greatest Threat To Global Security: Climate Change Is Not Merely An Environmental Problem, article, United Nations, UN Chronicle, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/greatest-threat-global-security…

11 UNHCR Staff, 2021, Data reveals impacts of climate emergency on displacement, article, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2021/4/60806d124/data-reveals-…

12 Parliament of Australia, Chapter 2 Climate change-related threats to national security, viewed 2022-11-15, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign…

13 Peter Jennings, 2020, Increasing Defence’s role in disaster response is essential but costly, article, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/increasing-defences-role-in-disaster-…

14 S Dziedzic & E Handley, 2019, Climate change is ‘no laughing matter’, Fiji's PM Frank Bainimarama tells Australia during Scott Morrison’s Pacific trip, news article, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-18/climate-change-is-no-laughing-ma…

15 E Handley, 2019, Australia accused of putting coal before Pacific 'family' as region calls for climate change action, news article, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-16/australia-slammed-watering-down-…

16 P O’Brien, 2022, China’s Pacific Push Is Already Remaking the Region, news article, The Diplomat, viewed 2022-11-14, https://thediplomat.com/2022/06/chinas-pacific-push-is-already-remaking…

17 D Zhang, 2020, Assessing China’s Climate Change Aid to the Pacific, PDF, The Department of Pacific Affairs, College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University, viewed 2022-11-14,https://dpa.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2020-02/dpa_in_brief_2020_3_zhang_final.pdf

18 United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, Climate Change and Strategic Approach, PDF, viewed 2022-11-14, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uplo…

19 United States Department of Defense, 2021, Climate Adaption Plan, PDF viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.sustainability.gov/pdfs/dod-2021-cap.pdf

20 New Zealand Ministry of Defence, 2018, The Climate crisis: Defence Readiness and Response, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.defence.govt.nz/publications/publication/the-climate-crisis…

21 Deloitte, 2009, Energy Security America’s Best Defence, PDF Report, viewed 2022-11-14, https://offiziere.ch/wp-content/uploads/us_ad_EnergySecurity052010.pdf

22 Australian Defence Magazine, 2022, Army unveils electric Bushmaster, article, viewed 2022-11-14, https://www.australiandefence.com.au/defence/land/army-unveils-electric…

23 C Simon, 2021, Climate change as a national security issue, article, The Harvard Gazette, viewed 2022-11-14, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/04/john-kerry-discusses-rel…

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(Parker, 2022)
Parker, E. 2022. 'Climate and Australia’s National Security'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/climate-and-australias-national-security (Accessed: 15 April 2024).
(Parker, 2022)
Parker, E. 2022. 'Climate and Australia’s National Security'. Available at: https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/climate-and-australias-national-security (Accessed: 15 April 2024).
Elliot Parker, "Climate and Australia’s National Security", The Forge, Published: November 16, 2022, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/climate-and-australias-national-security. (accessed April 15, 2024).
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