Defence and climate change management

 The Arleigh-burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) navigates around a storm developing on the horizon.

In February 2015, President Barack Obama listed climate change alongside international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and infectious disease in a new national security strategy. The US National Security Strategy called climate change ‘an urgent and growing threat to our national security’.

A new report released today by the Centre for Policy Development suggests that climate change will be given only piecemeal consideration in this year’s Defence White Paper. If that’s right, then it’d be the first White Paper since the 2000 version not to canvass, with some degree of seriousness, the need for Defence to prepare for rapidly changing weather patterns.

Terrorism, the threat of ISIL and an assertive China now take the spotlight on a crowded national security dais. But as The Longest Conflict: Australia’s Climate Security Challenge makes clear, climate change is a unique type of threat. While countering terrorism was badged the ‘long war’, climate change is an inter-generational challenge: it requires a paradigm shift in thinking about what constitutes our strategic horizon.

The Longest Conflict’s key recommendations build on previous work by ASPI and others (PDF, p33–43). Chief amongst these are: the requirement that the 2015 White Paper sets out a climate security roadmap, develops a climate resilient ADF, and brings Defence into whole-of-government policy discussions on climate change.

There are two aspects of this new CPD report that we particularly liked. First, climate security need not be viewed in zero-sum terms: there are real strategic opportunities to be harnessed where everyone’s gains are maximised. There are, for example, opportunities to constructively engage our regional allies—including on a military-to-military level—that deepen security ties in a positive way around climate change, and in particular HADR.

Second, we also liked the focus on the Asia–Pacific. It’s a part of the world that’s extremely vulnerable to climate change, with rising sea-levels, storm surges, and other extreme weather events including bushfires, droughts, floods and mega-typhoons.

By 2030, there’ll be almost a billion people in low elevation coastal zones across the region. Climate change will displace people through floods, storms and rising sea levels, as well as food and water shortages. Bangladesh is the ‘ground zero’ of global warming, where rising sea levels could displace millions of people over coming decades.

But while some militaries are turning their attention to climate security, others aren’t. The recent Chinese White Paper, for example, doesn’t discuss the subject. Other big military players such as Russia, India and Pakistan also seem disinterested. For those states, and others too, there appears to be a view that spending to ensure that their armed forces are climate resilient won’t necessarily enhance their war fighting capabilities.

By contrast, the US recently convened a major defence, national security, and climate change symposium that set out many dimensions of national security, conflict and climate change.

The US army, for example, has embarked on a ‘net zero’ initiative to make its bases water-and energy-independent through green technology, and it’s conducting a review (PDF) to assess the vulnerability of its overseas bases to climate change.

The CPD report certainly raises the need for more detailed information of climate security risks. Here it’s worth noting that many of the risks confronting national security and Defence are preparedness risks that undermine what the ADF calls ‘fundamental inputs to capability’. They include military personnel, its ‘organisation’, collective training activities, major systems, supplies, facilities, support as well as ‘command and management’.

The current Force Posture Review, that’ll underpin this year’s White Paper, should consider the impacts of climate change on these matters. If the proposal to prepare a stand-alone climate strategy is a bridge too far for Defence, then the ADF might consider including it as one part of the forthcoming Defence Environmental Strategic Plan.

Although there have been pockets of activity, for the most part Defence has been playing catch up on climate change and its broader implications for national security. This new CPD report underscores the need to strengthen the current ADF Global Change and Energy Sustainability Initiative team to work on climate preparedness issues and appoint a senior ADF officer to act as a single strategic voice for climate change national security issues.

Such a move would be particularly timely in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this year, where delegates will attempt to reach a global deal on climate change.