Australia’s strategic thinkers can’t continue to ignore climate change

Hugh White’s latest book, How to defend Australia, has attracted much attention. As the book’s back cover rightly claims, White is ‘Australia’s most provocative, revelatory and realistic commentator on defence’. But, as he himself might say, this is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that we have someone who is willing to think the unthinkable—the possibility that the US might leave the region and that we ought to think about getting nuclear weapons if it does—in a way many policymakers and strategic types find intensely discomfiting. The bad news is that White’s book is not nearly as ‘realistic’ or ‘revelatory’ as we might have hoped.

He’s not alone. On the contrary, the intellectual universe inhabited by ‘serious’ strategic thinkers is one that continues to revolve around a very traditional notion of possible security threats and the best ways to respond to them. One thing there does seem to be agreement on among Australia’s strategic elites, however, is that we ought to be spending much more on defence, despite real concerns about the appropriateness, viability and effectiveness of recent acquisitions.

But for an epistemic community that prides itself on its hard-headedness, it’s remarkable that climate change remains a niche concern and one that only really matters if it affects traditional geopolitics. While the recent speech by the chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell, on the implications of climate change in the Pacific is a welcome acknowledgement of reality, his remarks were primarily concerned with the possible opening it provides China.

Campbell apparently assured his listeners that the defence organisation ‘has been preparing for the impact of climate change “for years”’. Whether his audience of senior public servants were reassured by that observation isn’t clear. Given that the ADF’s response to most issues usually involves buying more weapons and preparing for the worst, perhaps they were. That has been, after all, the default response of Australian strategic thinkers for most of our history as an independent nation. As White’s book reminds us, it still is.

No doubt many readers will think this is the self-indulgent nit-picking of an over-privileged limp-wristed liberal and/or inner-city greenie with no conception of strategic reality. Perhaps so. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I, or—much more importantly—the vast majority of the world’s scientific community, aren’t right to be deeply concerned about our collective, entirely unsustainable, impact on the biosphere.

There’s one big difference between the possible threat posed by climate change and that posed by, say, China, India or Indonesia. As even the most bellicose and alarmist of the Canberra commentariat would (presumably) concede, it’s very difficult to conceive of any circumstances in which any of the usual suspects are actually likely to pose a direct existential threat to Australia.

Climate change, by contrast, is already happening, getting worse more quickly than even pessimists thought, and likely to affect the world’s driest continent particularly badly. Our very own water wars are a taste of what’s to come.

In the meantime, we spend increasingly large sums of money on weapons systems that no one expects to use, even in the unlikely event that they actually work as advertised. White implicitly acknowledges the inherent implausibility of traditional security thinking when he points out that even if Australia’s trade routes were threatened (a slightly more plausible scenario), ‘we would have no practical options to protect our seaborne trade from attack’. Quite so.

It’s also important to recognise that when—not if—the impact of climate change gets much worse, it is sure to exacerbate all of the ‘usual’ challenges that keep strategic types up at night, plus a few new ones that don’t bear thinking about. Environmental refugees are a problem that looks especially ill-suited to a military response. Or perhaps not, if our principal ally’s policy on border protection is anything to go by.

Indeed, Campbell isn’t the only one who has been turning his mind to the strategic consequences of climate change. His counterparts in America’s military establishment have also been war-gaming the implications of unmitigated climate change. They’ll need to do a lot more of it given that their commander-in-chief doesn’t think it’s happening and is seemingly intent on doing everything he can to make it worse.

Tragically, the most immediate, direct existential threat that Australia (and every other country, for that matter) needs to defend against is one that threatens the very foundations of human life itself, not to mention democracy and a civilisation worthy of the name. Hyperbole? Sadly, almost certainly not. Schoolchildren seem to get that, even if some of the smartest people in this country still appear to be incapable of doing so. When we have a real and immediate danger to confront, do we really want to waste our very limited time responding to the improbable variety?