Militarism and climate activism: staring down the threat of climate disaster

Peter Burdon

"Climate change is the biggest threat". This was the answer given by US Admiral Samuel J. Locklear in 2013 to a question about the biggest security challenge in the Pacific region.1 While such urgency is lacking in the environmental policy of first world governments in the Pacific basin, the risks and opportunities presented by climate change are not being lost on the military.

For over a decade, the Pentagon and other Western militaries such as Australia have put serious thought into the medium and long-term implications of climate change.2 For example, in 2003, the Pentagon released a paper titled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security."3 The report predicted massive flooding, storms, forced migration, food shortages, starvation and water crises. Moreover, as a result of diminishing carrying capacity, the report also foresaw a dramatic growth in violent political and social unrest over dwindling resources. Aspects of this report have been updated and expanded by Michael Klare in his important book 'The Race for What's Left'.4

The authors of the Pentagon report also predicted "boom-times" for militarized security, as nations that have food, water, energy and other resources mobilize high-tech technology to separate themselves from the masses outside of their geographical borders. By 2025-2030, the authors predicted: "The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortress around their countries because they have the resources and reserves to achieve self-sufficiency. ... Borders will be strengthened to hold back unwanted starving immigrants."

Such an outcome would make current Liberal/National Party immigration policy look like "an evil child's fumbling toys" to quote Hannah Arendt. And yet, the Australian government already uses the Navy to prevent asylum seekers from landing on Australian soil. Moreover, it has continued to build an "economic fortress" around itself by dramatically cutting5 its foreign-aid budget and refusing to commit6 to the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

At the same time, the military has extended itself into Australian society to such an extent that it is ideally placed to silence internal protest over climate policy and the distribution of scarce resources. Like a many-headed-hydra, our security apparatus can monitor, intercept, infiltrate, intimidate and physically punish dissenters.

The militarisation of Australian society has grown significantly since 9/11. An important moment in this development was a 2006 policy review by Andrew Smith and Anthony Bergin for the Howard government.7 In this review, the authors advocated 'domestic security' as the new 'core business' of the Australian armed forces. This policy direction was supported8 to the Commonwealth Defence Act 19039 which expanded military call-out powers for event security and whole-city terrorism.

Just one year later, in Thomas v Mowbray10, the High Court sanctioned use of the federal defence power in section 51(vi) of the Australian Constitution in peacetime for domestic purposes.11

Police forces are also adopting military ideas and tactics to confront demonstrations about climate change and other justice issues. Stephen Graham highlights in his book Cities Under Siege, the way that large defence and IT companies have created a multi-billion dollar market in civilian technologies directed at crowd control and civilian disturbances.12 Geographic mapping and drone technology are perhaps the best-known examples utilised by the Australian police.

Increasingly Australian cities are subject to what Graham calls "urban militarism". For example, the objectives section of the Queensland government's G20 (Safety and Security) Act 2013 places "civil disobedience" and "terrorism" as matters of equal concern to the police.13

While purporting to be concerned with the "safety and security" of people attending the G20 summit in Brisbane in late 2014, the Act targets political protest by prohibiting items such as eggs, bags of flour, loud hailers, placards, banners and "things capable of emitting a sound loud enough to disrupt the part of the G20 meeting." Elsewhere the Act provides police with powers to strip search suspects and conduct warrantless searches of premises.

Even more concerning is the National Security Amendment Act (No.1) 2014.14 The Act affects political communication by giving ASIO enhanced surveillance powers, including the ability to monitor entire networks with a single warrant. Greens Senator Scott Ludlum warns15 that these changes are merely a prelude to further legislation aimed at US-style mandatory data retention.16

While often reported as separate enactments, each of these developments represents a significant increase in the government's ability to silence anti-government sentiment fuelled by climate disruption.17

It is relevant here to note that sales of George Orwell's classic 1984 have increased massively in recent years.18 If you are looking for a dystopian vision of a future, dominated by climate disruption and militarism then I offer O'Brien's classic description to Winston at the end of the book: "Imagine a boot stamping on a human face ‒ forever."

This might sound like hyperbole, but I do not think it is a stretch to imagine a time when the US-Australian19 Great Green Fleet20 (complete with biofuel planes21) is deployed in the name of national security to "hold back unwanted starving" climate refugees or masses of people suffering from climate related disease.22

The only thing that could stand in the way of this scenario is an ecologically informed, ethically-minded and democratically empowered citizenship. Individuals around the world have tasted the potential of such a movement in mass climate marches. And as this movement grows and diversifies it must understand and be prepared to confront what Eisenhower called the "acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military industrial complex."23

Dr. Peter Burdon is a Senior Lecturer at the Adelaide Law School, deputy chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Ethics Specialist Group, and a member of Friends of the Earth, Adelaide.

























Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016