The direct threat of climate change to Australia

Author: Jessica Walters, Monash University

Following the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, debate and discussion has unfolded surrounding the risks that climate change will pose to Australia’s national security. As it affects societal and human well-being, impacting health, food and water resources, and the countries neighbouring Australia.

The United Nations IPCC released the first key assessment on climate change since 2014 on 6 August 2021. It revealed the extreme unfolding of global warming,  much faster than originally anticipated. It predicted the average surface temperature of the Earth to surpass 1.5 to 1.6 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels by the year 2030  a whole decade sooner than stated by the IPCC three years ago. Our Earth’s carbon sinks — forests, oceans and soil — are becoming increasingly saturated with high levels of carbon. Soon, their ability to absorb human-induced emissions will substantially decline.

Climate change is a unravelling and multiplier risk to Australia’s national security, and as an internationally perceived strong political power and significant player on the global stage; Australia is a state which should lead in decisive climate action. The IPCC report states the increased risk of conflict is likely for Australia and the globe, if climate change is not adequately addressed. It suggests the urgency of Australia’s action, and a need for a rapid and effective response to not only ensure stability within the nation, but furthermore to ensure the collective security of the Indo-Pacific Region is maintained, coinciding with Australia’s national security.

Environmental security is a relevant and subsequently overlooked security topic within societal and political debates, however it is one which is of concern to industries which Australia’s economic strength is undoubtedly built upon. For example, the agricultural sector’s gross value in Australia was $61 billion in 2020, $202 billion for mining, $3.1 billion for fisheries and aquaculture, and $24 billion for forestry. In 2019, it was estimated that climate change could cost Australia $4 trillion dollars as a consequence of its direct impact on industry. As a risk multiplier, climate change creates extreme events such as floods, fires, and droughts, but it is the threat to livelihoods from these events which creates economic, social and wellbeing consequences, which can in turn impact state stability.

From an Australian defence perspective, environmental security is only considered a national security risk where environmental factors create conflict, and environmental degradation harms global economics and wellbeing. There seems to be no lack of this. Today, research analysing social issues, including homelessness, unemployment, poverty and loss of livelihoods points to the stresses caused by climate change. Evidence indicates that an increase in stress in many regions of the world is creating conflict, both within states and across state borders. This is a strong present and future possibility for Australia and the Indo-Pacific Region.

There is no doubt Australians are feeling the stresses posed by climate change. In 2019, severe drought swept the nation, severely damaging the agricultural industry and subsequently people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. This drought created ideal environmental conditions for bushfires, resulting in the catastrophic black summer bushfires of 2019, in which 33 Australian lives were lost. The security risk associated with extreme weather events is increasing so rapidly, that our ability to cope with subsequent stress will become less. In the space of economics, food, water and other resource management under climate change conditions, if not addressed, then there is the high possibility for induced stresses to flow across borders, where conflict as a result of climate change may unfold. Scientific projections show global temperatures are continuing to rise by 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius, contributing  to a 30% increase in dry weather and changes to climate, heightening the frequency of floods, drought and severe storms. This further inflated stress on the productivity of business, placing pressure on resources, creating social issues and increasing the probability of conflict.

Not only is climate change directly impacting Australian society, but it is also affecting neighbouring nations in our own backyard, posing a further risk to Australia’s national security and the overall stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The IPCC predicts that rising sea levels are to increase by 30 to 60 centimetres, with a continued increase in the frequency of cyclones and other extreme weather events. This is expected to result in the loss of agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure, and substantial land mass for the low-lying South Pacific islands. This is predicted to create a strong need for civilians of affected islands to relocate, an act of climate migration, consisting of the mass-movement of persons due to climate change consequences. Notably, this is occurring in Syria, Bangladesh and in other climate affected nations and now in the South Pacific Ocean.

Australia holds a strong bilateral relationship with nations in the South Pacific, providing $1.44 billion for development assistance for the 2020 to 2021 period, and $500 million for renewable energy, disaster and climate change resilience. But this does not prevent the likelihood of people requesting migration to Australian shores because of livelihood loss, land mass decrease and natural hazard risk from climate change. As a national security risk, the stability of the Australian nation will be impacted through such possible large influxes of migrants. This may bring forth a heightened stress on competition for resources between Australian citizens and migrants, increasing competition and stresses on housing, employment and increased strain on health, education, transport and welfare systems.

International leaders have pressured the Australian Government to promptly act on climate change, as the IPCC reports a ‘code red for humanity’. US President Biden’s administration has urged Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to acknowledge an increased need for change as Australia begins to be viewed as under-contributing to climate change action. It is now clear that the implications of climate change are currently posing a key national security risk to Australia, within the nation and across state borders.

The Australian Government must carefully consider the crisis of climate change and its future impacts on Australian national security.

Jessica Walters is a penultimate year Bachelor of Global Studies and Bachelor of Science student at Monash University, currently pursuing expertise in environmental and climate security.