Climate Change and Conflict By Matt McDonald  |  25 April, 2023

Climate isn’t a Distraction from the Military’s Job of War Fighting. It’s Front and Centre

Image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/ Flickr

This article was first published by The Conversation on 25 April 2023 and is reproduced with permission under Creative Commons licence.

It was pitched as the “most significant” shift in Australia’s armed forces in decades. And among the headline announcements, climate change was recognised as an issue of national security.

But the strategic review of Australia’s military released yesterday doesn’t go a lot further than that when it comes to the climate crisis. The review devotes just over one of its 100 pages to what climate change means for defence.

And while overseas analysts and militaries seriously address the strategic effects of climate change and the role for defence, the Australian review focused more on climate change as a potential distraction from the military’s core business of war fighting. As our armed forces are increasingly called to respond to natural disasters, the review reports, they are less ready to fight a war.

This focus is too narrow. It’s also a long way from what the research is telling us, and a long way from what our allies are doing.

What’s the link between climate change and national security? At a fundamental level, security doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t extend to conditions of survival. The climate emergency has been described as a direct threat to both human and ecological security.

But climate change also hangs over the traditional security agenda, which is to defend against any attacks. Forward-thinking militaries around the world have begun to prepare for these effects.

Climate change could make armed conflict more likely by acting as a “threat multiplier”.

Climate-driven droughts, desertification, changing rainfall patterns and the loss of arable land could lead to the collapse of governments or a fleeing population.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and some analysts have pointed to the role of climate change in contributing to armed conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and Syria’s civil war.

Unchecked climate change is likely to trigger more demand for armed forces to respond to natural disasters, predicted to increase in intensity and frequency on a hotter planet.

Yesterday’s strategic review focuses on this demand, and for good reason – it’s already happening.

Increasingly, the army and air force are being called on to respond to Australia’s tide of “unprecedented disasters” like the floods of the last three years, and the summer of fire in 2019–20. Navy ships evacuated hundreds from the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria, under eerie light.

And then there’s the world. The demand for army-backed humanitarian help is rising. Our neighbours are among the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of natural disasters.

Beyond responses to refugees, conflict and natural disasters, there’s the question of how militaries are equipped, trained and resourced.

Higher temperatures, rising seas and natural disasters could threaten defence infrastructure and bases. Australia’s defence department is the largest landholder in the country, much of it in exposed coastal areas.

Our military has a substantial “carbon bootprint”, given it relies heavily on machines which burn fossil fuels, from destroyers to tanks. Ensuring these have enough fuel in the future is a concern, especially if the substantial military contribution to greenhouse gas emissions comes under more scrutiny.

In this sense it was good to see the review note the importance of the military accelerating a transition to clean energy. But the urgency of the climate crisis suggests our military should also be factoring climate change into procurement considerations and equipment management now. To date, there’s little evidence Australia has done so.

What are other countries doing? Key partners like America, the UK and many other countries are well ahead of us. In my ongoing research, I’ve analysed climate responses and interviewed policymakers from other nations. This suggests we’re lagging well behind.

The US military began analysing what climate change would mean for it back in the 1990s. Biden’s government has given climate change greater priority in its National Security Council and firmly linked climate and security in what one interviewee told me was a “game changer”.

The UK has an expert body within its defence ministry examining the security implications of climate change. In 2021, it produced a strategic document with emissions cut goals for its armed forces, as well as investment to make the transition possible.

New Zealand has gone beyond reactive responses and embraced an active role for its military in responding to natural disasters at home and in the region. One interviewee told me this was central to the military’s “social licence”.

New Zealand’s position has been strongly influenced by the concerns of its Pacific neighbours. Wellington decision makers also decided defence will not be exempt from government-mandated goals to get to net zero.

France has taken a similar position on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief focused on its overseas territories and the wider Francophone world. These operations are presented not as a distraction but as a core commitment.

Sweden and Germany used their time on the UN Security Council in recent years to push for a resolution on the organisation’s role in addressing the international security implications of climate change. And when Sweden joins NATO, it’s likely to push for more military preparation for climate change given recent NATO commitments on this front.

Can Australia catch up? Yes. But the first step is to recognise where we are – and where the world is heading.

Australia’s defence sector must seriously engage with what climate change will bring, not least given our region’s acute vulnerabilities and the existential concerns of our Pacific neighbours.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s review suggests our defence establishment does not wholly share these concerns.

Related articles:

Is Climate Change a Threat to Australia's National Security? (3-minute read)

Climate Change Threatens First Nations - Their Perspectives Must Be Heard (3-minute read)

Matt McDonald is Associate Professor of International Relations,  at The University of Queensland. He has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Research for this article was funded by an Australian Research Council grant: DP190100709.