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Climate isn’t a distraction from the military’s job of war fighting. It’s front and centre


It was thrown as the “most significant” shift in Australia’s armed forces in decades. And among the headline announcements, climate change was recognized as a national security issue.

But the strategic review from the Australian Army released yesterday doesn’t go much further than that when it comes to the climate crisis. The review devotes just over one of its 100 pages to what climate change means for defense.

And while foreign analysts and militaries are seriously addressing the strategic impacts of climate change and the role for defence, the Australian review focused more on climate change as a potential distraction from the military’s core mission of warfare. As our armed forces are increasingly called upon to respond to natural disasters, the review notes, they are less willing to go to war.

This focus is too narrow. It is also a long way from what the research tells us, and a long way from what our allies are doing.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Australian Armed Forces chief Angus Campbell launched the defense strategic review yesterday. But climate change was not the focus.

What is the connection between climate change and national security?

At a fundamental level, security doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t extend to the conditions of survival. The climate crisis is described as a direct threat to both human And ecological security.

But climate change also hangs over the traditional security agenda, namely defense against possible attacks. Progressive militaries around the world have begun to prepare for these effects.

Climate change can make armed conflict more likely by acting as a “threat multiplier”.

Climate-induced droughts, desertification, changing precipitation patterns and the loss of arable land can lead to the collapse of governments or a population fleeing.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and some analysts have pointed out into the role of climate change in contributing to armed conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and the civil war in Syria.

Unchecked climate change is likely to lead to increased demand for military forces respond to natural disasterspredicted to increase in intensity and frequency on a hotter planet.

Read more: Climate change poses ‘immediate threat’ to Australia’s national security. It must be a political priority

Yesterday’s strategic review focuses on this question, and for good reason: it’s already happening.

Increasingly the army and the air force is called to respond to the tide of “unprecedented disasters” in Australia, such as the floods of the past three years and the 2019-2020 summer fires. Navy ships hundreds evacuated of Mallacoota beach in Victoria, under eerie light.

Climate isnt a distraction from the militarys job of war.0&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
The Navy rescued hundreds of people from Mallacoota beach in eastern Victoria in early 2020 as fierce fires raged.
EPA/Royal Australian Navy

And then there is the world. The demand for military-backed humanitarian aid rises. Our neighbors are among the most vulnerable in the world to the consequences of natural disasters.

In addition to responses to refugees, conflict and natural disasters, there is the question of how armies are equipped, trained and resourced.

Higher temperatures, rising seas and natural disasters can threaten defense infrastructure and bases. The Australian Defense Department is the largest landowner in the countrymany of them in exposed coastal areas.

Our military has a substantialcarbon boot print”, as it relies heavily on machines that burn fossil fuels, from destroyers to tanks. Making sure these have enough fuel in the future is a concern, especially if it’s substantial military contribution greenhouse gas emissions are under closer scrutiny.

In that sense, it was good to see the review highlighting the importance of accelerating the military’s clean energy transition. But the urgency of the climate crisis suggests that our military must now also factor climate change into procurement considerations and equipment management. To date, there is little evidence that Australia has done this.

What are other countries doing?

Important partners such as America, the UK and many other countries are way ahead of us. In my ongoing research I have analyzed climate responses and interviewed policy makers from other countries. This suggests that we are well behind.

The US military began to analyze what climate change would mean for them in the 1990s. The Biden administration has made climate change a higher priority in its National Security Council, firmly linking climate and security in what one interviewee told me was a “game changer.”

The UK has an expert body within its Ministry of Defense that examines the security implications of climate change. In 2021 it produced one strategic document with emission reduction targets for its armed forces, as well as investments to enable the transition.

New Zealand has gone beyond reactive responses and embraced an active role for its military in responding to natural disasters at home and in the region. One interviewee told me this was central to the military’s “social licence.”

New Zealand’s position has been heavily influenced by its country’s concerns Pacific neighbours. Decision-makers in Wellington have also decided that defense will not be exempt from government-mandated targets to get to zero.

New Zealand aid
New Zealand’s armed forces have refocused on climate and disaster response. This photo shows relief supplies being unloaded at Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport following the January 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami.

France has one similar position on humanitarian aid and disaster relief aimed at the overseas territories and the wider francophone world. These operations are not presented as a distraction, but as a core commitment.

Sweden and Germany have used their time in the UN Security Council in recent years push for a resolution on the organization’s role in addressing the international security implications of climate change. And when Sweden joins NATOwill likely push for more military preparedness for climate change given the recent NATO commitments on this front.

Can Australia overtake?

Yes. But the first step is recognizing where we stand — and where the world is headed.

Australia’s defense sector needs to get serious about what climate change entails, not least given the acute vulnerabilities of our region and the existential concerns of our Pacific neighbours.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s review suggests that our defense institute doesn’t fully share these concerns.

Read more: Australia’s finally acknowledged climate change is a threat to national security. Here are 5 mistakes to avoid

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