A change in climate
25 Mar 2013|

Maximum temperature (°C) 1 December 2012 to 28 February 2013Today ASPI releases a report, Heavy Weather: Climate and the Australian Defence Force, which I’ve co-authored with Anthony Press, the CEO of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, and former ASPI analyst Eliza Garnsey, now based in Cambridge.

The 2009 Defence White Paper dismissed climate change as an issue for future generations, judging that the strategic consequences wouldn’t be felt before 2030. But we think that’s no longer the case. Heavy Weather argues that the downstream implications of climate change are forcing Defence to become involved in mitigation and response tasks right now. Defence’s workload will only increase, so we need a new approach.

Climate change is a change in Defence’s operating environment. Just as the ADF changes in response to shifts in economic conditions, technology and demographics, it needs to adapt in response to changes in the physical battlespace. Climate science involves no more uncertainty than other environmental factors in Defence planning. The ADF operates on ‘warning times’, so it needs to understand how environmental changes can affect risk management and prepare accordingly.

Climate change will require Defence to play its part as part of a whole-of-government approach, rather than work in isolation. Tasks range from identifying the threat and taking preventive action to reduce the risk, through to dealing with the consequences.

The ADF will always need to have hard-edged war-fighting capabilities, but it will also have to recognise the increasing requirement to become involved in capacity building, especially in those countries that are already feeling the effect of stresses and where climate change will have its greatest impact.

Heavy Weather recommends that Defence work with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency to establish an interagency working group on climate change and security. The group would focus on analysing climate event scenarios for Australia and the Asia–Pacific region in order to manage the risks those scenarios pose to national resilience and regional stability.

Having a senior ADF officer, backed by a competent and knowledgeable staff, with responsibility for climate change matters would send the right message about the degree to which the ADF is responding to climate risks. The Navy’s Hydrography, Meteorology and Oceanography Branch Director-General is well placed to become the adviser to the Chief of the Defence Force on climate issues. A key role would be to develop a Responding to Climate Change Plan, which details how Defence will manage the effects of climate change on its operations and infrastructure.

On the home front, Defence should audit its environmental data to determine its relevance for climate scientists and systematically make that data publicly available.

And at the international level, Australia should work with like-minded countries to share best practice and thinking on how military organisations should best respond to extreme weather events. Extreme heat, floods and bushfires were likely all aggravated this summer in Australia by a shifting climate, and the trend is likely to continue.

These recommendations, and others that are set out in Heavy Weather, aren’t about Defence having a ‘green’ view of the world: they’re about the ADF being well placed to deal with the potential disruptive forces of climate change.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Australian Bureau of Meteorology.