Agenda for change: the urgent need for a regional climate change risk assessment
18 Feb 2022|

On 2 February, ASPI released Agenda for change 2022: shaping a different future for our nation to promote public debate and understanding on issues of strategic importance to Australia. The key message in Agenda for change 2022 is that we need to embrace uncertainty, engage with complexity and break down the silos. Our economic prosperity, national resilience and security depend upon it.

In the lead-up to every federal election, ASPI looks at the big challenges facing Australia and what’s needed to address them. Included in Agenda for change 2022 is a chapter by Robert Glasser and Anastasia Kapetas on the urgent need for a regional climate change risk assessment.

The authors advocate for a filling in of the climate and security ‘policy vacuum’ by the next Australian government. This will require a better understanding of the profound consequences of climate change for both regional and national security. A regional climate change risk assessment would provide the evidence base for more effective policy interventions to help mitigate climate change risks and bolster the climate resilience of our neighbours.

Glasser and Kapetas say Australia has never conducted a comprehensive regional climate risk assessment that incorporates geopolitical impacts. This assessment would also explore how climate risks interact with current social, political, economic and technological risks to form new threats to our national interests and national security.

The need for urgent action is being driven by the presence of ‘overlapping systemic risks’ compounded by ‘state fragility and declining governance’, which are ‘increasingly important regional features in a warming climate’.

In mounting the case for a regional risk assessment, this chapter points to the compelling evidence on the impacts already being felt:

Sea-level rise, for example, is accelerating more rapidly in maritime Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world. Extreme rainfall events will increase in severity and frequency across parts of Australia, Southeast Asia and continental Asia, while simultaneously other subregions will experience more severe and persistent droughts. The severity of tropical cyclones will increase, and their tracks are likely to shift poleward.

The authors note that the ‘implications of those impacts are obvious’, for example, in the ‘existential threat to low-lying small island states’. But in more complex climate interactions with critical components of human security, such as food systems, the impacts are not as well understood.

Glasser and Kapetas warn that the geopolitical consequences of climate change in the Indo-Pacific region include disruption of supply chains, effects on trade relations, and the impact of ‘winners and losers in the global energy transformation from fossil fuels to renewables’.

Increasing climate-related migration arising from extreme weather events is also highlighted. The authors note that in 2020 more than 30 million people (the vast majority of which were in the Indo-Pacific region) were displaced by climate-related disasters. ‘Such a disaster [drought] was a factor in the Syrian civil war, which resulted in the huge influx of Syrian refugees to Europe. More recently, it was the primary factor in a wave of migration from Central America to the US.’

The authors also note studies that link climate-change effects and terrorism.

There’s robust evidence suggesting that natural disasters are strongly associated with outbreaks of terrorism. In the Middle East and North Africa, climate-change impacts facilitated the rise of ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Terrorism escalated significantly in both Sri Lanka and Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Glasser and Kapetas argue that the ‘reference point’ for a regional climate risk assessment should be ‘Australia’s national interests, extending beyond our narrow security and economic interests’. Such a focus requires a whole-of-nation approach and must draw in cross-sectoral interests and bring together policymakers, hazard and risk experts, climate scientists and supply-chain experts.

In undertaking this assessment, the authors say we need to establish governance arrangements to identify our national interests and select climate warming scenarios. We also need to identify hazards and how they ‘interact with the region’s complex human systems’. From there recommendations will flow and assessment information will guide implementation across government.

The timeframe to undertake the climate risk assessment is an ambitious 12 months—a reflection of both the severity and the wide-ranging consequences of this threat. Given the region’s ‘exceptional exposure and vulnerability to climate change’ and the ‘significant strategic risk’ to Australia, it must be an urgent priority for the next government.