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Implications of climate change for Australia's national security: Whose security do they have in mind?

Jyotishma Rajan and Wendy Flannery ‒ FoE Climate Frontlines

A preliminary response to the Australian Senate Committee's report on "Implications of Climate Change for Australia's National Security"

In May 2018, a few weeks prior to the major Pacific climate change event in Brisbane co-hosted by Friends of the Earth Climate Frontlines and the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, the Australian Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade released its report on the implications of climate change for Australia's national security.

The report primarily views climate change as a threat to the Australian socio-economic system's capacity to sustain life as Australians know it. For instance, it acknowledges that climate change threatens human health, and therefore recommends the Commonwealth develop a national climate change, health and wellbeing action plan. Initial public responses to the plan from military sources make a special point of the way in which Defence infrastructure and personnel will be negatively impacted by climate change impacts like sea level rise and heatwaves.

The report recommends the Department of Defence establish a leadership position to help plan and manage disaster and humanitarian relief to Australia's neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. However, international disaster and humanitarian relief may be most effective when delivered by neutral non-governmental development organisations. Disaster and humanitarian relief is not the sole purview of Defence, and it is telling that the Senate Committee sees the Department of Defence playing a more significant role in this area.

The Report's focus on the fundamental link between security and military resources is flawed. It can be argued that increasing militarisation in fact contributes to insecurity. Purely from an ecological perspective, it is easy to see how the constant growth in size, capacity and use of military hardware and military activities has an exponentially negative impact on the environment and contributes in a significant way to climate change.

One set of factors highlighted in the report as a threat to Australia's security is the perceived impact of climate change in the Asia Pacific region. Climate change is seen as a catalyst for instability in Australia's neighbouring countries, including violent conflict, and a potential generator of "irregular" mass migration into Australia. Among other things, such migration is seen as including the danger of bringing with it diseases such as tuberculosis.

At the recent Brisbane forum on climate change and displacement in the Pacific titled "Where do we go from here?", participants including Pacific Islanders were bemused and insulted by these disrespectful and audacious, not to mention inaccurate allegations. Climate change forced displacement in the Pacific, already a reality, has not been accompanied by any violent conflict. A representative group of Pacific Island leaders made a special approach to the UN Security Council in 2015, not because they were seeking a resolution of conflict but because they wanted to highlight the security threats their peoples ‒ and even entire nations ‒ are facing because of the multiple impacts of climate change.

The Committee agrees that climate change threatens the Pacific but it does not recommend that the Australian government adopt more ambitious, stringent targets to reduce Australia's emissions which are causing climate change in the first place. Because the Australian government still has no serious policy to combat climate change, it is virtually an agent of other peoples' insecurity. For many Pacific Islander communities, climate change threatens not only their livelihoods but their whole way of life and any kind of viable future. As Rev Tafue Lusama, the keynote speaker at the forum declared: "The threat of uprootedness as a result of climate change has to be rapidly addressed if catastrophe is to be avoided. Otherwise the people of Tuvalu have to look for an alternative place on the face of this planet, since we have no assurance of life continuity on our islands."

To stem the misplaced perception of violent conflict driven migration, the report recommends increasing climate change official development assistance (ODA) to the Pacific "to the extent that financial circumstances allow". Firstly, this means the Pacific cannot expect any meaningful increases in adaptation financing from Australia. When climate finance is delivered through ODA, it is not considered new or additional to address the incremental impacts of climate change. Secondly, it clearly outlines Australia's motivation to protect its own borders instead of protecting those that are most vulnerable in the Pacific. Climate change ODA is a way of keeping the Pacific "safe" for Australia, and "securely" under Australia's domination.

Closer to home, the report recommends the Commonwealth establish a climate security leadership position in the Home Affairs Portfolio to coordinate climate change resilience, infrastructure planning, health and disaster management. Again, it is telling that the report does not recommend increasing capacity in the national health system, or disaster management arrangements.

Also closer to home, a military response will be of no help whatsoever to, for example:

  • Australian farmers facing extreme conditions of drought and seasonal uncertainty
  • Communities in areas subjected to more frequent and more extreme cyclones
  • People living in low-lying coastal communities whose land is being gradually eaten away by the impacts of sea level rise and extreme weather events
  • People whose livelihoods depend on tourism from the Great Barrier Reef
  • Communities in the central and north western Torres Strait who are already facing the threat of climate change related displacement.

Interestingly, the report does not see climate change causing violent conflicts in affected Australian communities, nor does it acknowledge the movement of climate change affected people within Australia.

In conclusion, the recommendations in the Senate Report on the implications of climate change for Australia's security will boost resources for the military but will not create benefits for those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts, either at home or for its neighbours.

Jyotishma Rajan was born and grew up in Fiji. She worked on climate change issues in the Pacific for 10 years and now lives in Brisbane. Wendy Flannery is a member of Friends of the Earth's Climate Frontlines collective.

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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