Image from Department of Defence

Australia is failing in its duty to protect its people, according to a network of former defence and security leaders, who say regional unrest and resource scarcity are just the beginning of our concerns under even modest climate change projections

The report from the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG), which formed this year, is titled Missing in Action: Responding to Australia’s climate & security failure.

ASLCG is urging the Australian government to “prevent devastating climate impacts by mobilising all resources necessary to reach zero emissions as fast as possible”. 

Former Australian Defence Force Chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, said we were already seeing climate change playing into regional conflicts, and there was no reason it could not happen closer to home.

Admiral Chris Barrie

“In vulnerable countries, climate-fuelled water and food insecurity have mixed with instability, leading to the collapse of governments and civil wars, as we’ve seen in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. 

“The failure of leadership and inaction by Australian governments have left our nation ill-prepared for the security implications of devastating climate impacts at home and in the Asia Pacific, the highest-risk region in the world.”

As well as regional instability, the report pointed to potential water scarcity directly impacting Australia — warning that inflows into Australia’s food bowl of the Murray-Darling Basin had reduced by 40 per cent since 2000 — and threats posed by climate change to Australia’s supply chains.

“Climate impacts on agriculture have the potential to significantly threaten food production in Australia,” Admiral Barrie said.

“Australia’s supply chains are precarious, being a distant island in a hyper-connected global economy. In a global emergency where supply chains are disrupted, domestic oil supplies would last only weeks.”

He flagged the immense burden placed on defence force personnel to “pick up the pieces” during the 2019-20 bushfires and said accelerating climate impacts would stretch them beyond their capacity to respond. 

The authors provided a four-pronged “climate-security risk action plan” for the government to act upon: 

  • Appointment of an independent expert panel to urgently conduct a comprehensive Whole-of-Nation Climate and Security Risk Assessment, using the best available information
  • The establishment of a specific Office of Climate Threat Intelligence that can provide an integrated flow of analysis to governments and departments
  • The establishment of a national climate risk assessment, as occurs in the US, where a high level expert group works with relevant agencies to provide a regular, publicly-available assessment of climate trends, risks and impacts; and
  • The preparation of a policy of Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent (R2P2) which systematically and holistically addresses climate-security risks

Australia’s climate risk solutions suffering from “siloed” thinking

One of the report’s authors is Cheryl Durrant. As former director of preparedness and mobilisation at the Australian Department of Defence, she helped develop climate risk scenarios for security agencies; prior to which she spent 15 years in the Australian Army specialising in strategic intelligence, information operations and domestic security.

She told The Fifth Estate, Australia’s long list of security risk areas of concern such as energy, food, infrastructure, cyber and so on, were being tackled in isolation from each other.

Cheryl Durrant

“One of the things that’s emerging globally, but also starting to be a conversation in Australia, is really with global threats like climate change, it doesn’t make any sense for us anymore to be working on these problems in silos,” Ms Durrant said. 

According to Ms Durrant this fractured approach was greatly hurting Australia’s ability to address its highest security risks. She described a culture in Australia of “secrecy and silos” both on a national level and, crucially, between various government departments.  

“Departments tend to focus internally rather than externally across other government departments. The system is set up to reward people who do well within a silo and not people who see opportunities between them.” 

One of the things driving change now was that those in the traditional defence security sector were looking more broadly at how climate change would impact their range of operations.

“You can’t fight a war if your base is flooded, you can’t get fuel in your aircraft if it’s coming in through a port which has just been hit by a hurricane, or travel up a road which has just been hit by a fire. So these are not unconnected problems.” 

While regional unrest was a major concern, with a number of Australia’s developing neighbours at serious risk of rising sea levels, natural disasters and resource shortages, Ms Durrant said in many ways these countries were better equipped to tackle adversity than Australia.

“There’s really quite brilliant stuff on disaster resilience coming out of odd places like Bangladesh and the Philippines. Because I tell you what, they’ve had disasters at scale for a long time now and they’re pretty good at dealing with it with limited resources,” she said.

“If you’re constantly under stress, you then are forced to build adaptive measures and forced to build resilience, whereas if you’ve had it lucky for so long and then a big event comes, you’re going to be much more fragile.”

Ms Durrant will join US Embassy Chargé d’affaires, Michael Goldman and ASPI’s Dr Robert Glasser for an online panel discussion on climate and security organised by the Climate Council on 14 September.

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