As the rising waves lap seaside homes around the nation, global warming induced storms wreak devastation and soaring temperatures bring the national power grid to a halt, defence leaders stare blankly into space and mutter to themselves: “Why the heck didn't do something about climate change when we had the chance?”
A Special Correspondent | Canberra
That’s certainly the impression you get from a couple of pre-Defence White Paper studies released by climate groups to press the government and defence to adopt a climate change policy more in line with their particular outlooks.
Back in June, a paper by the thinktank the Centre for Policy Development titled “The Longest Conflict – Australia’s Climate Security Challenge” urged the government to use the upcoming Defence White Paper to adopt a coherent strategy to respond to climate change.
Launched under embargo with some fanfare, this study bore a close resemblance to their submission to the White Paper which had sat on the defence website mostly unnoticed except by those defence obsessives who notice such things.
"The 2016 White Paper could reasonably go a step or two further, declaring the effects of climate change are being felt now and the consequences are likely to increasingly engage defence attentions."
It warned that on current expectations the White Paper will pay “only passing and piecemeal consideration to climate change”.
In September, the Climate Council released its own study, again predicated on the expectation that the White Paper, drafted during the time of prime minister Tony Abbott would be especially light on for climate change.
Former defence chief Chris Barrie fronted this study and also the subsequent climate security summit, giving its conclusions greater credibility than if it had been Greens leader Richard Di Natale doing the spruiking.
Barrie said he bristles at suggestions the defence force had done nothing about climate change. It’s actually done a great deal.
For example, the two new Canberra-class LHDs will give defence an unprecedented ability to conduct humanitarian and disaster relief operations far out into the region. The RAAF with its fleet of C-17, C-130 and KC-30A aircraft can now move more people and stuff further than ever before.
But, Barrie asks, will that be enough and will there be sufficient personnel to respond to multiple concurrent crises in Australia and the region? And how will already heavily laden soldiers cope where an already warm climate is even warmer? Fair questions.
And how about air bases at Townsville and Williamtown, both susceptible to sea level rise and storm surge likely be to occurring just when they’re needed most?
Defence force chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin touched on this very topic during Senate estimates hearings in October, noting that defence doesn’t specifically plan for climate change.
But it does plan for the potential consequences, which aren’t uniquely the outcome of climate change. That includes natural and humanitarian disasters and mass people movements.
ACM Binskin isn’t wild about appointing a senior officer, possibly a one or two-star, as defence’s climate change supremo.
“It might look good, but practically it doesn’t give me anything,” he said.
Besides, there’s already a very senior officer responsible for responding to climate change consequences and everything else. That’s the chief of joint operations.
VCDF Vice Admiral Ray Griggs said Defence had conducted studies on vulnerability of bases to sea level rise and on future energy sustainability. Considering Defence’s vast appetite for fuel, especially when conducting operations, this is a big one.
So what might we expect in the 2016 White Paper?
The 2009 Defence White Paper is light in its references to climate change, citing that and resource security as new security concerns likely to exacerbate already significant population, infrastructure and governance problems in developing countries.
It says uncertainty about the effects of climate change and the period of time over which potential impacts may develop make it difficult to assess strategic consequences. Large scale effects were not likely to be felt before 2030.
The 2013 White Paper goes further, declaring climate change and pressure on resources would increase the risk of insecurity and conflict in fragile states. That pointed to an increasing demand for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and stabilisation operations over coming decades.
On that incremental trajectory, the 2016 White Paper could reasonably go a step or two further, declaring the effects of climate change are being felt now and the consequences are likely to increasingly engage defence attentions.
Barrie said neither the prime minister or defence minister were involved in the writing of the White Paper.
“I am very hopeful that if climate change was not in the draft it will be in the final product,” he said.
But climate change is unlikely to be elevated to what the Greens peace and security policy declares to be one of the greatest ever threats to international peace and security.
"The South Pacific region will face challenges from slow economic growth, social and governance challenges, population growth and climate change. Instability in our immediate region could have strategic consequences for Australia should it lead to increasing influence by actors from outside the region with interests inimical to ours. It is crucial that Australia help support the development of national resilience in the region to reduce the likelihood of instability. This assistance includes defence cooperation, aid, policing and building regional organisations as set out in Chapter Five. We will also continue to take a leading role in providing humanitarian and security assistance where required.
"Climate change will be a major challenge for countries in Australia’s immediate region. Climate change will see higher temperatures, increased sea-level rise and will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These effects will exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation, and will contribute to food shortages and undermine economic development. To help countries in our immediate neighbourhood respond to the challenges they face, Australia will continue to play an important regional leadership role. Our strategic weight, proximity and resources place high expectations on us to respond to instability or natural disasters, and climate change means we will be called on to do so more often. We will continue to play that role in close collaboration with New Zealand, France, the United States, Japan and other partners."