ASPI’s decades: Climate and security

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The world has reached a set of big judgements on global warming and started to act. The arguments are intense, as they should be, about the future of the planet.

Yet the facts are in. Climate change is happening. The science is settled.

The way we live our lives will change in many dimensions. The world will suffer more extreme weather events and disasters.

Climate change will undermine political and economic stability and increase the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, and it threatens the very survival of Pacific island countries.

Governments are committed: nations accounting for 70% of world GDP and greenhouse gases have targets for net-zero emissions, typically by 2050, and the developed world has pledged deep cuts by 2030.

Dollars follow the facts in what governments must do, and what public and private investment will do. Across the globe, the business, industry and finance sectors plan for a decarbonised future, altering today’s share market and the insurance predictions for tomorrow.

Tackling the climate crisis is a great challenge of our times: to have a fighting chance of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C ‘requires nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies’.

The F flag flying for fossil fuels now means they have a fading future. The fact of that fading is even announced by a previous megaphone for big oil, the International Energy Agency: the energy economy will be transformed ‘from one dominated by fossil fuels into one powered predominantly by renewable energy like solar and wind’.

As a major resource exporter, Australia grapples with the world’s turn away from carbon. Hard truths batter our leaders.

The previous four prime ministers were all hurt by the politics and policy of climate change. The issue contributed to the ‘it’s time’ factor that defeated John Howard, deeply damaged Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and was a designated reason the Liberal Party twice dispatched Malcolm Turnbull, once as opposition leader and then as prime minister.

The warming war still divides public opinion. A poll in June found that more than half of Australians (56% to 58%) believe that climate change is happening and that the heating is caused by human activity; 59% believe Australia needs to follow the lead of other countries and make action a priority.

ASPI’s response to the crisis is the Climate and Security Policy Centre, created with this judgement:

Climate change is a global systemic threat that will have enormous consequences for Australia’s national security and for international security more broadly.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt globally in record-setting extreme weather events that are contributing to poverty, hunger and humanitarian disasters.

The pace at which these and other climate impacts emerge is accelerating. The existing commitments states have made to reduce greenhouse gases are inadequate to prevent warming beyond the 2-degree cap set in the Paris Agreement. Even with additional reductions, the climate will continue warming for decades from the greenhouse gases already released to the atmosphere.

The impacts in the Indo-Pacific region, the most disaster-prone globally, will be profound. Climate hazards will not only exacerbate existing regional challenges, such as separatist movements, territorial disputes, terrorism and great-power competition, but also contribute to food insecurity, population displacement and humanitarian disasters on an unprecedented scale. The cascading impacts will undermine political and economic stability and increase the risk of conflict. For Pacific island countries, climate change is an existential threat.

The objectives of the Climate and Security Policy Centre are to:

  • evaluate the impact climate change will have on security in the Indo-Pacific region, including by identifying the most likely paths through which disruptive climate events (individually, concurrently or consecutively) can cause cascading, security-relevant impacts
  • develop practical, evidence-based policy recommendations and interventions to reduce climate change risks and promote their adoption by policymakers
  • increase Australian and regional expertise, understanding and public awareness of the links between climate change and national security
  • identify the implications of those links for key stakeholders, including the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, other government agencies, parliamentarians and the private sector.

In writing about climate change, an old journalist cliché takes on new life: ‘Only time will tell.’ And the old serial throw-forward line applies in many ways: ‘To be continued.’

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.