Why climate change is Australia’s greatest national security issue

The Canberra Times

I recently gave my “National Security and Counterterrorism” Masters students a syndicate exercise at the end of their course requiring them to prioritise the most serious threats to Australia’s national security (with national security being defined as safeguarding the “wellbeing” rather than “survival” of Australia – “survival” being more relevant to the Cold War era).

They were given 13 threats or potential threats to consider: adverse global trends and challenges to the international system; terrorism and piracy; instability and failed or failing states; poverty, inequality, and poor governance; serious and organised crime; WMD proliferation; climate change; civil emergencies, including natural disasters and pandemics; state-led threats (such as rising powers and balance of power issues); competition for energy and resources; social cohesion; sovereignty issues (including illegal fishing and illegal entry to Australian waters and airspace) and; cyber threats.

They then had to rank them by scale of impact, geographic proximity and urgency in time, and come up with a list in order of priority. I don’t have the space here to go through the list of outcomes, but the students’ calculations based on current intelligence projections indicated that climate change should be our top national security concern.

Most people in Australia may not think of climate change as a national security issue but the US has been issuing reports about the national security impact of climate change since 2008. Photo: Jessica Shapiro
Most people in Australia may not think of climate change as a national security issue but the US has been issuing reports about the national security impact of climate change since 2008. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Most people in Australia may not think of climate change as a national security issue, but the US has been issuing reports about the national security impact of climate change since 2008.

In June 2014 the US Department of Defence went further and produced a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan focusing on the need for resilience while adapting to the impacts of climate change. It notes “Sustainability and adaptation to climate change go hand in hand”. Similar reports have been produced by the EU, NATO and Britain.

Among the sustainability aspects covered in the US plan are the need for US Defence to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make use of sustainable buildings, have better fleet management, improve water-use efficiency and management, improve pollution prevention and waste reduction, engage in sustainable procurement, have better electronic stewardship (to reduce energy use), make more use of renewable energy, and have energy efficiency-based contracts.

Climate change is predicted to affect national security interests in many ways, particularly in deteriorating regions of the world already prone to conflict. Climate change can also directly influence military activity by changing areas available for training exercises and operations, reducing available water supplies, increasing flood and fire hazards, and increasing severe weather risks. The latter aspects underline the need for defence forces to be able to engage in disaster relief as a primary task.

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