Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

Defence must regard climate change as a serious security issue

By Anthony Bergin

In September, US President Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum on climate change and national security.

It establishes a policy that the impacts of climate change must be considered in the development of national security doctrine, policies and plans.

To achieve this, 20 US agencies and offices with climate science, intelligence analysis and national security policy development missions and responsibilities will collaborate to ensure the best information on climate impacts is available to prepare for unavoidable impacts.

The day the memorandum was issued, the US ¬National Intelligence Council released its own report identifying how climate change could pose significant security challenges for the US over the next two decades, including stressing US military operations and bases and straining the capacity of US and allied armed forces to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

There’s now evidence that the tide’s also turning here: Defence is recognising the challenges posed by a changing climate and the closely related subject of energy sustainability.

Last year’s Defence white paper referred to climate change and its deleterious effect on both the strategic environment and on defence infrastructure.

Since Australia signed a statement of co-operation agreement with the US Navy in 2012 to share information on alternative fuels, the RAN has progressed from testing one Seahawk helicopter during RIMPAC four years ago, to three warships that took more than 4.5 megalitres of blended ¬alternative fuel from US oilers during RIMPAC in August.

In May, Chief of Navy Tim Barrett approved the use of US Navy-sourced alternative fuel blends for RAN ships’ diesel as a replacement fuel for RAN ships manufactured via the US Navy-approved pathways.

Technical constraints for the two current pathways for producing RAN diesel from synthetic crude require that it must be blended with at least 50 per cent of diesel produced from fossil crude to meet Navy standards.

Defence on its own won’t shape the energy market, even though it spent $524 million on fuel in 2014/15 (just under 60 per cent air force, 33 per cent navy and the residual to army).

Defence use of liquid fuels is a drop in the ocean of the nation’s fuels consumption (industry and mining are much bigger users). But there’s no reason why Defence shouldn’t set an ambitious target in terms of moving towards alternative fuels by announcing it’s ready to receive cost-competitive blended products.

Perhaps the clearest statement on the way Defence is starting to think harder about climate change came in September from Lieutenant General Angus Campbell in his opening address to the Chief of Army’s exercise.

His speech had a focus on climate change. He said the top 10 most at risk countries with exposure to sea level rise by 2100 were all in the Indo-Pacific. More than 138 million people are at risk. More than 500,000 people live in the small Pacific and Indian Ocean island states that may become uninhabitable between 2050 and 2100.

An unstable planet, he said, was one of the three issues he believed central to the security challenges we’ll encounter in redefining boundaries for the 21st century land force. (The other two were what he called empowered individuals and assertive states, although he said there was some degree of interplay between the three drivers.)

The general said that while we didn’t know where the problem of climate change would take us, he said climate change was the “ultimate threat multiplier’’.

Campbell said armed forces had their role to play in response to climate change, not just in adopting best practice on environmental management and energy needs, but in increasing the use of Defence assets in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. He said the scale of climate change problems, their unpredictability and the level of support required from land forces were key issues for Defence.

He should be commended for delivering this message: there’s no doubt some of our new capabilities such as the Canberra-class LHDs, future frigates, offshore patrol vessels and our air transport fleet will find climate change and its effects a key driver of activity over the coming decades. Within regions where resources come under strain, nationalism will surge and conflict can erupt.

But we’ve fair way to go when compared to our major ally. Last year the US Defence department issued a directive that dictates that climate change be incorporated into every aspect of US military training and preparedness.

The directive says Defence must be able identify and assess the effects of climate change and take those effects into consideration when planning. It must anticipate and manage risks that develop as a result of climate change to build resilience.

A point of interest for Australia is that the directive says the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will work with US allies and partners to optimise joint exercises and war games incorporating climate change considerations.

Defence should now appoint a senior military leader to act as a strategic voice for climate change national security issues, including preparedness and capability. The first step would be a review of climate change impacts on Defence.

One area for Defence to examine would be alternative jet fuels. Scientists are close to using eucalyptus trees to develop renewable jet fuel.

Eucalyptus oil contains compounds that can be refined through a catalytic process and converted into a high-energy fuel.

Defence could initiate a pilot program and team with researchers to grow its own jet fuel and revegetate arid and semi-arid bases and training ranges with suitable trees. It might partner with indigenous communities and provide jobs and iron out the ups and downs of commercial fuel prices.

Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and senior research fellow, National Security College, ANU.
Originally published: The Australian. 2 December 2016.