ASPI’s decades: Covering climate change

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

For a think tank devoted to strategy, the need to combat climate change leads naturally to the realms of defence and national security.

ASPI’s early work on climate change was driven by Anthony Bergin from the time he joined the institute in 2006.

Bergin had been director of the Australian Defence Studies Centre at the Defence Force Academy (1991–2003), and his writing on climate drew on his study of oceans policy, the South Pacific and Antarctica.

Bergin twinned his research on terrorism with his study of climate change. His responses to the two scourges rhymed: the need for Australia to ‘harden’ and build resilience, for the Australian people to clearly understand the policy challenges, and for all arms of government to think about lines of leadership, responsibilities and coordinated responses.

Bergin hunted for answers that joined up Australia’s governments, police, emergency services, insurers and businesses. A central thought running through his writing was the impact of climate change on the role and structure of Australia’s military.

In 2007, Bergin and Jacob Townsend issued A change in climate for the Australian Defence Force discussing how the ADF must rebalance its mix of missions and create new mission types. The task was to look out two to three decades to examine the implications for strategy, force structure, capability and the way the military uses energy.

ADF missions would blend disaster relief, development assistance and state-building, Bergin and Townsend wrote. The biggest challenge would be changing Defence’s behaviours and systems without reducing the ADF’s operational capability.

Relief missions would demand the capability to move and land large volumes of supplies. The navy might require more shallow-draft ships to land in disaster‑stricken areas and heavy-lift helicopters for ship‑to‑shore transport, or even hovercraft:

For the ADF, the rapid response that disasters demand may require bigger surge capacity, a larger logistics capability and maintaining higher states of readiness. Additional resources would be needed, while extreme weather will add complexity to military missions and maintenance schedules.

In the following decade, Bergin hailed as ‘absolute game-changers’ the navy’s biggest vessels, the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks, which were longer than the previous aircraft carrier. The ships could respond to disasters in Australia as well as in the region:

The LHDs will focus on regional military support, including in disasters (they can be deployed as floating hospitals and command and control centres); evacuation missions (such as a raid from the sea to recover hostages); and peacekeeping. They will also play a key role in extreme natural disasters at home.

At ASPI’s 2007 Global Forces conference, Brahma Chellaney argued that beyond the environment or economics lay a new topic: ‘climate security’, expressing the ominous link between global warming and international security.

Climate change would be a ‘threat multiplier’, Chellaney said, raising the risk of water wars, while different weather patterns would impinge on military operations. The most severe effects of climate change would occur where states were poor or fragile:

Intra-state and inter-state crises over water and food shortages, inundation of low-lying areas, or recurrent droughts, hurricanes or flooding may lead to large displacements of citizens and mass migrations, besides exacerbating ethnic or economic divides in societies. It is thus important to examine the risks of global warming, including potential situations in which climatic variations could be a catalyst for conflict within or between states.

ASPI explored the policy implications of the scientific findings and the expanding demands of national security, and Bergin produced or co-wrote a series of studies.

Australian domestic security—the role of Defence: The primary ADF focus was on warfighting, but a shift or broadening of military culture was needed. Expectations of Defence in domestic security had increased: ‘Government is attracted to using the ADF because it projects strength.’ Potential roles included maritime surveillance, special-event security and mass-gathering protection, communications and community liaison, and critical infrastructure protection.

An Office of National Security: Australia needed a national security strategy, created and run by an independent entity reporting directly to the prime minister, much like the Office of National Assessments.

Taking a punch emphasised resilience, robustness and alternative supply options as answers to terrorism and climate-caused disasters—building the ability to deal with large-scale catastrophic events. Disaster response loomed as ‘a core mission’ for the ADF, influencing equipment decisions and military basing around Australia.

Cops and climate: Australia’s eight police forces would be the ‘thin green line’, facing disasters and environmental refugees, enforcing emissions trading schemes and protecting precious water.

All in a day’s work—business and Australian disaster management: There’d be a dollar in it, but business is happy to help. And they’re already in place.

Rudd’s Army—a deployable civilian capacity for Australia: In 2009, the Labor government considered a deployable civilian capacity for the rapid use of civilian experts in international disaster relief, stabilisation and post-conflict reconstruction. Bergin and Bob Breen recommended an emergency response register (medical teams, engineers, logisticians, sanitation experts and communications technicians) and a register monitoring the quantity and location of commercial stocks for emergency aid.

Hardening Australia argued that the disasters of climate change would ‘become larger, more complex, occur simultaneously and in regions that have either not experienced the natural hazard previously or at the same intensity or frequency’. The nation needed to harden critical infrastructure just as it should harden the preparation and coordination of its emergency response system.

In 2010, Here to help explored the developing Defence role in disaster management. Extreme weather events would increase the vulnerability of the growing populations in coastal developments and in bushfire-prone areas. The ADF would be called because of the continual per capita fall in the number of volunteers and emergency services personnel and ‘growing community and political expectations to use military resources to support whole-of-government counter-disaster efforts’.

Financing Australia’s disaster resilience posed fundamental questions about the roles of private insurance and government in reducing future losses from natural disasters: ‘We need a new approach to financing the costs of natural disasters and encouraging those living in high-risk areas to be better prepared. The reality is that all Australian taxpayers will have to bear a share of this cost.’

In 2013, Heavy weather said that the ADF would inevitably be involved in mitigation and response tasks. Seeking to deflect the politics of scepticism or denial, the report argued that this wasn’t a ‘green’ view, but was about the need to prepare Australia’s military to deal with disruptive forces. An interagency group should examine ‘climate event scenarios for Australia and the Asia–Pacific’ and the implications for national resilience and regional stability. The ADF chief should have a climate adviser and should work with the Five Eyes allies (Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) to plan military responses to extreme weather events.

In 2014,Working as one: a road map to disaster resilience for Australia reported that natural disasters cost the Australian economy $6.3 billion per year, and that was projected to rise to $23 billion by 2050. Rather than ‘just waiting for the next king hit and paying for it afterwards’, Australia must build the resilience of individuals and local communities as well as state and federal agencies.

As strategy is always about responding to change, the discussion of climate security had become one element of responding to climate change.

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