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Political leaders ignoring the biggest threat to our national security

By Robert Glasser

A key aspect of the climate debate has been neglected in election campaigning by the major political parties despite its fundamental importance to Australia’s future: the impact climate change will have on Australia’s national security.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese believes climate change is a “major national security issue” on-par with “nuclear annihilation”, while opposition defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor has said it’s “the most significant threat to Australia’s defence”. O’Connor believes that it will be impossible to achieve “lasting national security” without an effective climate response.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton rejects that notion and accuses O’Connor of neglecting the “very serious” threat from China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly acknowledged a domestic connection between climate and national security in the context of the enormous devastation caused by Black Summer, but his main international climate security concern has been to avoid alienating our alliance security partners, particularly the US, who have been pressuring Australia for more ambitious climate action.

There’s no doubt that our worsening relationship with an increasingly assertive China is rapidly degrading our security environment. But it’s not an either/or question; the two challenges are connected. Recent analysis suggests that climate change will not only amplify the China risks, but ultimately also upend the geopolitical landscape.

In a rapidly warming climate, geo-strategic competition between China and Australia will be like trying to manoeuvre chess pieces on a toppling chessboard.

There are three main reasons why climate change should be considered Australia’s main security threat. The first, as the PM has noted, is the severe impact it’s increasingly having on Australia. Although Black Summer was obviously not the result of a military attack, the aftermath of death and destruction did resemble a war zone: 24 million hectares of the country burned to the ground and 480 Australians were killed by the direct and indirect impacts of the fires, comparable to the number who died in the Vietnam War.

By any measure, our inability to protect the homeland from these impacts was a tragic national security failure. And the loss of life and economic costs will increase rapidly as the climate continues to warm, with the latter reaching well beyond $39 billion annually by 2050, which is roughly equivalent to what the Australian government spends each year on defence.

The second reason why climate change will emerge as our greatest national security challenge is its regional impacts. Last month, during his visit to flood-ravaged Lismore, Scott Morrison observed that climate change is making Australia “a harder country to live in”. If this is the case in a wealthy country such as Australia, imagine what climate impacts will mean for the hundreds of millions of people living in less developed countries on our northern doorstep.

South-East Asia is exceptionally exposed to the hazards that climate change is amplifying. The sea-level in the area is rising four times faster than the global average. Our regional neighbours will not only experience more severe extremes, but also more frequent swings from extreme heat and drought to severe floods. Scientists have warned that climate change could soon cut the region’s per capita crop production by one-third.

Much employment in South-East Asian countries is in the informal sector, with no official social safety nets to support the large populations that will increasingly be displaced by climate-driven disasters.

Climate disruptions, exacerbated by increasing inequality, will contribute to growing food insecurity, refugee flows, ethnic and religious tensions, violence and instability. In Indonesia alone, 275 million people will be jolted by these climate impacts. The security consequences for Indonesia, and for Australia (just 200 kilometres away at the closest point), will be profound.

The third reason climate change should be considered Australia’s main security threat is its impact on China. China is the key player in several existing regional security hotspots, each of which will be significantly affected by climate change. In the South China Sea, sea-level rise and overlapping claims of sovereignty have already caused conflict concerning fishing rights and tensions between the US and China. Tensions will also rise in the Mekong River basin, where China increasingly controls the river flow to the downstream states of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, each under growing pressure from the salination of freshwater and extreme flooding linked to climate change.

Climate disruptions in our immediate neighbourhood, such as severe humanitarian disasters, will also likely contribute to greater competition with China. The Chinese and US militaries (and the Australian Defence Force) may be drawn into the emerging disruptions for humanitarian reasons, to support government stabilisation efforts or out of concern that the other might exploit the situation for strategic advantage. This chaotic operating environment will increase the risk of miscalculation and confrontation. The China-Solomon Islands security deal is an early indication of how this could play out.

Like Australia, China is highly exposed domestically to climate risk. Two-thirds of Chinese territory suffers from the threat of flooding. The country accounts for 20 per cent of the global population but only 12 per cent of the world’s arable land, much of which is threatened by climate-related drought, and many of its aquifers in the north of the country are already over-exploited. Domestic climate disruptions are likely to have major economic, humanitarian, and internal political consequences for the country which will have significant knock-on consequences for regional security. For example, they are likely to increase the pressures on China to secure access to water and land for agriculture beyond its borders.

We need to begin preparing now for these wide-ranging climate impacts, which scientists tell us are accelerating. The current elections are an important opportunity to begin engaging and informing the Australian public about the scale of the challenge before us and the opportunities to reduce the risks. China must be an important part of that discussion, but as a well-recognised feature of a far more fundamental transformation of our security landscape.

Originally published by: on 16 May 2022