Australia has its “head in the sand” regarding the national security implications of climate change and should follow the US in spelling out the risks, a former senior Australian defence official says.
Australia’s “strategic weakness” on climate policy is also making it harder for the country to be seen as a preferred partner with Pacific Island countries, according to Cheryl Durrant, the defence department’s former head of preparedness.
The comments coincide with the release of a new report by the Climate Council that argues Australia has “fallen well behind the US, UK, Giappone, New Zealand and other peers in analysis of climate and security risks”.
The US president, Joe Biden, ha ordered a review of the security implications of climate change. His defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has said climate change is “making the world more unsafe and we need to act”.
Austin – who will meet with his Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, in Washington for the Ausmin talks on Thursday – said in April that no nation could find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis.
Echoing that language, the Climate Council report says climate change “increases the risk of conflict and Australia will not find lasting national security without adequately addressing it”.
“Failure to rise to the challenge of climate and security is already leading to a loss of geopolitical influence for Australia, particularly in the Pacific,” says the report, titled Rising to the Challenge: Addressing Climate and Security in our Region.
The report says water has long been a contested resource in Asia and climate change is worsening the situation.
“Any conflict over water in our region could have profound consequences for Australia,” the report states. “Pacific Island countries as well as Bangladesh, Cina, Vietnam, India and Indonesia face significant threats from sea level rise, which is likely to increase displacement and forced migration.”
The government’s defence strategic update, published last year, included only a passing reference to climate change when mentioning threats to human security.
“These threats will be compounded by population growth, urbanisation and extreme weather events in which climate change plays a part,” the document said.
Durrant, the lead author of the Climate Council report and long-serving former Australian defence official, said the Australian defence force was well-equipped to provide disaster support but it was important for the government to address “the root cause of this problem”.
“I get a sense that we’ve got our head in the sand – not necessarily the ADF, which I think would be quite keen to press on,” Durrant told Guardian Australia.
“I was hearing from, say, our Pacific maritime advisers, who are actually on the ground in the Pacific Island nations 24/7, 365 days a year – they are getting feedback on what Pacific Islanders think is really important.
“On the one hand we have our strategic narrative about the need to sort of shape and influence the region, and yet on the other hand we’re ignoring the strategic weakness of our climate policy, making it harder for us to be convincing as a preferred ally and partner.”
The Climate Council report urges the Australian government to launch a national climate and security threat assessment – an idea first recommended by a Senate inquiry in 2018.
It argues climate change “remains on the margins of Australia’s defence, foreign affairs and trade strategies”.
Durrant said the threat of great-power conflict had not gone away, but the proposed new review was “about stepping up and appreciating that climate change is a national security threat”.
“That’s quite clearly articulated pretty much by all our major allies now … and we’re the ones that are still not connecting the dots between rising disasters and the flow-on effects that those can have in destabilising the region and causing forced migration or conflict.”
Sherri Goodman, a former US deputy undersecretary of defense specialising in environmental security, welcomed the report, saying Australia “further risks being left behind the clean energy transition”.
Goodman told Guardian Australia climate change acted “as a threat multiplier, exacerbating risks for Australia and its allies, from extreme heat and wildfire at home, to devastating typhoons and extreme weather events across the Pacific”.
“A comprehensive climate security risk assessment, such as that ordered by president Biden earlier this year, is a key pillar in assessing climate risks to security missions, operations, and key operating facilities, including those jointly used by American forces in Darwin,” Goodman said.
The Australian defence department says it “prepares for a wide range of contingencies including those that may arise due to climate change”.
Lo scorso mese, in response to Senate questions on notice, the department said it “routinely considers climate risks” in its planning. Defence white papers in 2009, 2013 e 2016 had “acknowledged climate change as a national security issue”.
Di lunedi, the Liberal senator Andrew Bragg – the new chair of the Senate standing committee on environment and communications – urged the government to commit to net zero emissions at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow.