Australia should work with NATO on climate change
10 Jul 2024|

As Australia and the other three Indo-Pacific countries closely associated with NATO assemble in Washington to celebrate the alliance’s 75th anniversary, they should work to advance collaboration with it on climate and security assessments in the Indo-Pacific

Coordination with NATO by Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea (together called the IP4) could leverage current initiatives that commit to joint work on climate resilience, such as the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation), and the networks that each IP4 partner has in the region.

This engagement would enhance NATO’s understanding of Indo-Pacific climate risks and let IP4 countries benefit from the alliance’s growing expertise in the field. It would also reinforce the importance of climate resilience in the Indo-Pacific region regardless of political shifts within NATO’s membership.

NATO underlined its emphasis on climate risks by releasing a third annual Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment Report on the first day of the summit being held in Washington from 9 to 11 July. Meanwhile, the new NATO Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence celebrated its recent accreditation. The report details widespread threats that climate change poses to NATO’s operating domains and geographic regions, and it contributes an analysis of climate risks facing such strategic competitors as Russia and China.

Australia’s contribution to NATO climate work is conspicuously absent, despite the alliance’s excellent efforts in the field, the importance of climate to Australia’s national security, and NATO’s expanding partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. While NATO’s assessment of climate and security risks has moved ahead, Australia and its partners are missing a chance to contribute knowledge of their region and to be better informed on how climate change is affecting operations.

Prioritising climate change in security relationships may seem difficult at a time of many other pressing global security crises, not to mention political complications. There’s a common misconception that climate is a future problem, however.

In fact, its impacts are already here and will become more intense and costly the longer we delay preparation and emission reduction. The past 12 months have seen global temperature records consistently at 1.5°C above 1850–1900 levels. These are the warmest conditions humanity has experienced. Disaster intensity and frequency have risen rapidly, evidenced by the record-breaking heatwaves across many regions of the globe in recent months. While we’ve begun to make gains to rule out worst-case scenarios, we still need deeper emissions cuts to avoid truly dangerous global average temperature increases of 2.5–2.9°C.

A quick glance at NATO’s latest report shows how these effects can translate into urgent direct concerns for military operations and societal resilience.

Airlift capacity (including for Australia’s fleet of C-17 Globemaster aircraft) will decrease as air temperatures increase. Helicopter lift capacity is lost particularly when temperature exceeds a critical level of 40°C. This raises problems not just for military logistics but for humanitarian assistance and disaster response across an increasingly disaster-affected Indo-Pacific region.

Military facilities and infrastructure will be tested, and maritime assets will face higher maintenance as sea levels rise and stronger storms increase wave heights and erosion. Extreme heat affects both infrastructure and equipment (as was demonstrated at a Greek air force base last year when wildfire heat detonated ammunition stores) and personnel.

The NATO report raises myriad other concerning risks for military capabilities, from weather effects on space launches to the cybersecurity vulnerability of increasingly networked energy infrastructure and influences on submarine detection and equipment stealth characteristics.

Meanwhile, greater frequency and intensity of natural disasters will stretch civil response services and impose greater demand on armed forces. Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review noted that this had already put the country’s armed forces under greater pressure. The government is looking at how to unload them. The Australian Defence Force cannot be expected to attend sustainably to domestic and foreign disaster relief and its core function of defence, but will continue to face these pressures until it finds a lasting solution.

Layered onto this, the compounding and cascading systemic risks that climate will exacerbate globally—rising disruptions to food, water, energy security, supply chains and people movements, and impacts from energy transition—will strain societies and raise further pressure on militaries to support civil responses. These matters require a whole-of-society response in national adaptation and disaster management arrangements, with militaries playing an important but far from all-encompassing role.

We will need to deepen our knowledge of our strategic competitors’ climate risks. In its report, NATO has taken a brief look, noting that Russia and China face significant impacts domestically, with varying degrees of preparedness. Better understanding their climate-change preparedness, in addition to their roles in energy transition, will help us interpret their future resilience. That in turn has implications for security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities, and impacts on global food, energy and supply chain systems.

Collaboration with NATO by the IP4 is justified by these issues alone, but it would also be a way to emphasise Indo-Pacific climate issues in the event of Donald Trump regaining the US presidency.

Consider the risks that a return of Trump would pose for climate efforts at this critical point of balancing future emissions and preparing for climate-change impacts, particularly for Australia and Pacific island partners.

US Department of Defense studies on climate and security have produced assessments and advice that have helped lead the way for practical adaptation efforts in the national security sector. Similarly, US climate science provides services and data that are critical to global research efforts. US military capability and Indo-Pacific and transatlantic interests will suffer if a renewed Trump administration kneecaps the Pentagon’s ability to assess climate risks and degrades climate research. If the US lessens its support for climate response among Pacific island countries, China may fill the gap.

Engaging with and shoring up support for NATO’s climate and security work as a partner is a way of improving Australia’s understanding and communication of climate risks to NATO members. And it is a necessary and helpful mechanism for promoting a sustained focus on climate-change among NATO countries regardless of the US election outcome. With the rising threat that climate poses as a backdrop to our increasingly challenging global security environment, this is a no-brainer.