Climate Change and Conflict By Volker Boege  |  05 October, 2021

Criticism of Australian Government’s Haphazard Climate Policies from Surprising Source

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The current Australian government is lagging far behind other developed countries on climate policies. It has been criticised domestically and internationally for its lack of commitment and efforts, not least from its neighbours in the Pacific. Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are particularly exposed and vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and they are at the forefront of international diplomatic initiatives on climate change. Their regional organisation, the Pacific Island Forum (of which Australia and New Zealand are members) declared in its 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security that climate change is “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. On several occasions Australia has come under pressure from other Forum members because of its poor climate policies.

PICs and other critics have now received support from an unlikely source. Members of the Australian military and security community have raised their voices and challenged Australian climate policy by foregrounding the nexus between climate change and security. This is the focus of two reports published in September, one by the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group, the other by the Climate Council of Australia. Both reports, ‘Missing in Action. Responding to Australia’s climate & security failure’ and ‘Rising to the Challenge: Addressing Climate and Security in Our Region’, frame climate change and its effects as an issue of national and international security. They accuse the Australian government of jeopardising national security through its haphazard climate policies.

The ‘Missing in Action’ report, elaborated by former high-ranking members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Department of Defence, posits that global warming “is the greatest security threat facing Australia”. To address this threat, the authors argue, climate policies must be improved. It finds the current government’s policies wanting, quoting a UN report which ranked Australia last for climate action out of 193 UN member states. It demands “decisive policy action” in the interests of Australian security. The report refers to, among other things, the war in Syria, the Arab Spring, conflicts in the Maghreb, the Middle East and the Sahel as illustrations of the climate-security nexus, referring to forced migration and both internal and international displacement as security issues. It points to geopolitical tensions and increasing burdens on military forces as effects of climate change and draws a picture of growing resource competition, economic and trade disruptions and, consequently, increased rivalry between states. All this, it is argued, will have enormous consequences for Australia’s security and will put additional pressure on the Australian military. The ADF is presented as one victim of the Australian government’s inaction regarding climate change: it will have “to pick up the pieces in the face of accelerating climate impacts”, and its capacities will be severely affected by global warming.

Flowing on from its analysis, the ‘Missing in Action’ report calls for, among other things, “a comprehensive Climate and Security Risk Assessment’, the establishment of “an Office of Climate Threat Intelligence” and a “whole-of-government approach” to the climate–security nexus, which is a “complex system” and, accordingly, cannot be dealt with by a “siloed” approach, requiring instead a “holistic view and integrated responses”. The authors recommend that the Australian government adopt “a policy of responsibility to prepare and prevent, which systematically and holistically addresses climate security risks”.

The ‘Rising to the Challenge’ report by the Australian Climate Council argues along very similar lines (which is not surprising, given that Cheryl Durrant, Former Director Preparedness and Mobilisation at the Australian Department of Defence, is a lead author of both reports). It also warns of “substantial climate and security” risks to Australia that require “urgent action”. It has a clearer focus on Australia’s neighbourhood in the Pacific, pointing to the effects of sea level rise, and ensuing forced migration and displacement, as significant security risks. It laments the “loss of geopolitical influence for Australia” in the region and the deteriorating relationship with PICs that “have made many attempts to encourage Australia to adopt stronger emission targets and more specifically to encourage Australia to hasten its transition beyond fossil fuels”, and which have fiercely criticised Australia for its poor climate policies, which pose a direct threat to PICs.  

In its criticism of the Australian government, it is even more outspoken than the ‘Missing in Action’ report – stating, for example, that the government’s “financial support of the fossil fuel industry is actively undermining Australia’s national security”. The authors demand an end to all support for fossil fuels, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 75% (below 2005 levels) by 2030, and net zero by 2035. It pleads for “the rapid de-carbonisation of the Australian economy” and strongly recommends that “the root causes of climate-fuelled insecurity” be addressed. With regard to the immediate climate-security nexus it also, like the ‘Missing in Action’ report, calls for an “Integrated Climate and Security Risk Assessment, including all security sectors” and a “whole-of government decision-making process”.

While using the argument of national security is an interesting – and perhaps even promising – means of pressuring the Australian government to do more in the climate change field, it has its pitfalls and shortcomings. The argument remains in the confines of thinking that places Australia’s national interests up front and centre (others only figure insofar as they could negatively affect those interests), and it risks opening up the climate change field to ‘securitisation’ and even ‘militarisation’, legitimising and foregrounding military answers to the problems of climate change, at the same time supporting a narrow understanding of security. Although the ‘Missing in Action’ report posits that “climate change requires different thinking about security so that it is not seen as only about defence from armed attacks”, this “different thinking” goes little beyond a plea for a whole-of-government approach, and the inclusion of relevant industry sectors and “the wider society”. 

When it comes to climate change, however, more far-reaching alternative conceptualisations of security are more appropriate. Unlike the “Rising to the Challenge” report, the “Missing in Action” report at least makes reference to ‘human security’, although it fails to utilise the concept adequately to strengthen its line of argument. Other concepts of security, such as ecological security, or genuine Pacific understandings of security, which even go well beyond the human security approach, do not figure at all in the reports. In a Pacific holistic and relational worldview, the security of humans (or of peoples or nations) cannot be conceptualised and achieved in separation from that of other-than-human beings (both physical and spiritual), the environment and nature (Mother Earth or Creation if you like). Such a worldview can form the basis of a fundamental transformation of the economic system, and of lifestyles and politics that have led to today’s climate catastrophe in the first place.

It would probably be asking too much to expect “Australian Security Leaders” to subscribe to such an approach. We should be thankful, however, that they have raised their voices and tried to change inadequate Australian climate policies for the better.

Volker Boege is Toda Peace Institute's Senior Research Fellow for Climate Change and Conflict. Dr. Boege has worked extensively in the areas of peacebuilding and resilience in the Pacific region. He works on post-conflict peacebuilding, hybrid political orders and state formation, non-Western approaches to conflict transformation, environmental degradation and conflict, with a regional focus on Oceania.