Why climate change is Australia's greatest national security issue

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. 

Most people in Australia may not think of climate change as a national security issue but the US has been issuing ...
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

They then had to rank them by scale of impact, geographic proximity and urgency in time, and come up with a 1-13 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.

In June 2014 the US Department of Defense 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 Defense 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. 


The plan notes that "climate change is a clear national security concern. It affects us today and is forecast to affect us more significantly in the future. The Department is taking sensible, measured steps to mitigate the mission risk posed by climate change, managing the unavoidable and preparing for the possible." 

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. 

The British Ministry of Defence's Strategic Trends Program: Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045 notes that "climate change, a rise in sea levels, desertification and reducing biodiversity are all issues that could affect us even more over the next 30 years. They are likely to impact on agricultural production and fishing, and could exacerbate humanitarian crises. National security impacts of climate change include major population movements, changes in disease patterns, and climate-affected changes in economic development. 

In June 2015 a report released by the Australian Centre for Policy Development, The Longest Conflict: Australia's Climate Security Challenge, warned that Australia faces a significant national security threat if defence and security policies do not urgently start to address climate change. It found that "Australia will struggle to deal with climate vulnerabilities domestically and within our region. Interviews with experts from our closest allies, the United Kingdom and United States, reveal Australia has become a laggard in taking necessary action to prepare our defence force." 

On April 4, 2014, Tony Abbott  and then Defence Minister David Johnston announced that Defence would produce a new Defence White Paper to be released in 2015. The press release noted "The White Paper will include a comprehensive review of Australia's strategic environment, including the changes underway in our region and across the globe and the implications of these changes for Australia." 

It is to be hoped that the new White Paper will recognise the importance of climate change and provide comprehensive coverage of what Australian Defence will be doing to address climate change-related challenges. It should include:  improving the energy-efficiency of defence systems and facilities, preparing the Australian Defence Force for the operational impacts of climate change, and requiring all future procurements and contracts to be energy-efficient. 

Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism and a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.