• Credit: Getty
    Credit: Getty

The influence of the natural environment on military operations is as old as the battles of antiquity where soldiers and sailors fought against weather and terrain as much as they did their enemy.

Today we are confronted by global environmental degradation and climate change, occurring at an unprecedented scale and speed; with cascading and ramifying risks transferred to infrastructure, energy systems and the global economy. At this scale climate change impacts at every level of our military and national security systems.

Yet, while the interlinking of climate and environment with national security is recognised, it is still seen as a driver that attracts only secondary or tertiary importance. This article is the third of the opening series by the Institute of Integrated Economics Research (IIER) – Australia, and completes the trilogy of economics, energy and environment framed within a national security perspective.

Why consider climate change and environmental degradation in a national security framework? Have we got the right security framework to understand and respond to the new environmental and climate security paradigm?

Environmental and national security
National security is deliberately an imprecise term. This allows the government of the day to define national security in terms of an evolution of new threats. In 1969 the threat to Australia was the domino effect of communism manifested in the Vietnam conflict. Today the threat is multidimensional reflecting a world that is not clearly shaped by singular threats. Gareth Porter, in his comparison of national security to environmental security in the early 90s, noted that the sovereign state almost exclusively needs an ‘enemy’ to define national security.

Porter further said that environmental security represents a departure from traditional concepts of national security as it addresses two distinct elements:

  • the environmental factors potentially shaping violent conflict, and
  • the impact of degradation on global wellbeing and economics. 

In 2001 Jon Barnett wrote comprehensively on the Australian perspectives of environmental security, but for the two decades since then the ideological divide, the ‘climate wars’ has silenced public debate. And lack of public debate as meant that there is little or, no policy on environmental security beyond the piecemeal legal protection of the environment, largely implemented by states and territories.

This divide is serious and represents a well-entrenched organisational, ideological and cultural gap. A dangerous stereotype has emerged that places National Security as the business of serious people protecting our interests 24/7, and ‘the environment’ as being the hobby horse of well intentioned ‘greenies’ with a much narrower agenda and world view.

The challenge to change assumptions
There are at least five implicit assumptions in our political approach to climate change and environmental degradation that are questionable, and can continue to fuel the divide:

  1. Australia’s policy approach is that environmental degradation and climate change is not a significant national security risk. The extension is that, at best, it has the potential to cause instability in some other less developed countries requiring us to respond.
  2. The environment is something we can afford to consider, but only in a manner that doesn’t affect traditional security or economic arrangements.
  3. This change will be slow and generational thus allowing time to prepare and respond.
  4. Our systems (governance, defence, early warning, foreign policy, engineering, mitigation) are robust enough to adapt to slow changing effects brought about by environmental degradation and climate changes.
  5. Australians are great innovators and can always stay ahead of unwanted changes.

An old security paradigm
Challenging the assumptions above, and beginning the journey to demolishing the ideological divide goes to the heart of breaking conventional wisdom - a concept coined by Professor Galbraith, in his description of economic management in the affluent society. It is a description of the need for constant learning and agility.

The conventional wisdom is that you cannot have a good environment without damaging the economy and the well-developed systems of governance. This either-or argument frames the environment as something which will get looked at afterwards, it is like the ‘environment will get the scraps from the table after the banquet’.

This conventional wisdom has the very distinct outcome of stove piping environment and climate change as a very singular concern with well-intentioned actions but not serious for today’s imperatives. This prevents complex thinking and consideration of the national security implications of economic degradation and climate change in an evolving world.

But what happens when environment degradation and climate change take affect across the globe, where an act of environmental degradation that assists economic advancement for one group disadvantaging another is determined to be an act of war. Is it possible that these effects can become more than a long distance potential driver of conflict?

Organisations and systems are slow to change, and historical success becomes embedded as tradition. At some point the change reaches a tipping point that invalidates tradition.

As an example, modern weapon systems are highly lethal and can precisely target an enemy, yet they remain traditional in the methods of their employment where our thinking on security has not advanced further than blue versus red; resources versus resources or territory versus territory. Even in the long ideological war between capitalism and communism we were still able to define a discernible enemy that was a threat to our national security.

Cultural constraints
Underpinning our five assumptions, and contributing to the seemingly intractable divide (at least at the political level) is the culture of Australian society. As a settler nation Australia is imbued with a narrative of hard work and aspiration building success. Donald Horne gave us the wonderful sledge:

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

The lucky country tag fits nicely with a country that sits a long way in front of all nations having experienced 27 years of uninterrupted annual economic growth. Since 1991 all 34 member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have experienced at least one period of two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth; except Australia. Many of these economies experienced two episodes of negative growth during that period – one in 2001 following the collapse of the ‘dot.com bubble’; and one during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

From the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December 2018, the Government stated “a strong budget position allows Australia to face the future with confidence, providing a buffer to respond to any adverse developments that might occur in the global economy.”

John Blackburn, in his 2019 article “Australia’s Economic Security: Is there a problem?”, observed this is a picture in stark contrast to the analyses reported in the media. The claim that the Australian economy will have a buffer to respond to any adverse developments that might occur in the global economy, suggesting that we have adequate economic resilience, is fanciful at best.

However, Australians have grown wealthy on the back of sustained economic success, and pessimistic opinions with warnings of complacency can easily be ignored because lived experience shows that Australians repeatedly pull through when others don’t.

This is not just an economic narrative; it has become a strong national narrative driving success. The outstanding economic success and wealth of Australia defines a new culture for Australia, and it affects the way economic degradation and climate change are viewed. Simply put, consideration of these elements is a threat to economic success.

Organisational roadblocks created by implicit behaviours is also a challenge. The 2015 Centre for Policy Development (CPD) Paper on Climate Change and Security observed “the examples demonstrate a perception of an institutional reluctance to address this critical security challenge comprehensively. The sum of the parts that are identified demonstrate an understanding of the threat, yet without a guiding compass.”

Our continued economic success, the lack of perceived need to transform, and propensity for organisational inertia has made Australians complacent. Essentially the underlying culture expressed as ‘she’ll be right’ affects our preparedness to assess the risk represented by climate change and environmental degradation.

Australia’s security responses to climate change
In fairness, Australia hasn’t been totally asleep at the wheel in relation to facing up to the realities of climate change and environmental degradation. The 2009 Defence White Paper mentioned that the likely strategic consequences of climate change would not be felt until after 2030 (not on my watch so need to worry?). The Gillard government's Defence White Paper and National Security Strategy in 2013 identified the climate as a vague national security threat.

Well-known climate spokesperson, Ian Dunlop, has been critical of the 2016 Defence White Paper as it only mentioned climate change in passing as one of its six key strategic drivers of Australia’s security environment to 2035 and the impacts as a “threat multiplier”.

He also describes the mixed messages in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper which acknowledged that climate change will be an important influence on international affairs, particularly in our region, but then anticipated "buoyant demand for our exports of high-quality coal and LNG."

Critically, environment is considered by Defence to be an issue of good stewardship on bases and ranges, while DFAT considers environmental action as an obligation required in treaties and agreements.

The 2018 Senate Enquiry into the “Implications of climate change for Australia's national security” was an opportunity to build a more sophisticated understanding of systemic risk and vulnerability. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion was marred by political differences and consequently agreement was only achieved on the “low hanging” tactical fruit of existing programs, with no strategic implications.

Coalition senators in their ‘Additional comments to the Enquiry’ further confirmed their view that current arrangements on climate change and national security interconnection was entirely appropriate, planned for and robust.

Paul Barnes in the 2019 Australian Security Policy Institute Agenda for Change notes: “It’s fairly clear that, both historically and recently, groupings of national security agencies in Australia haven’t been able to articulate a joined-up approach to effectively begin to tackle the many impacts likely to flow from regional and global climate change effects and weather-related disasters.

"Greater coordination of effort is needed. This should occur over time as recent national security agency changes are more fully implemented, but time is a commodity that’s rapidly disappearing. There’s a degree of urgency, and such coordination shouldn’t be left to chance."

Understanding systemic risk
There are primarily two existential threats to humanity, climate change and nuclear annihilation. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilisation for all time to come. Nuclear arms as a manmade weapon are subject to many processes, technical and human, to prevent nuclear conflict, yet the threat remains an existential challenge.
Climate change and environmental degradation are more difficult to understand as this is an emerging phenomenon. This is part of the reason we have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks.

Our intuitions and coping strategies have been shaped by our long experience with risks such as dangerous animals, industrial accidents, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, war, and, epidemics. These types of disasters have occurred many times and our cultural attitudes towards risk have been shaped by trial-and-error in managing such hazards over human history.

Therefore, we arrive at the greatest incompatibility preventing integration of climate change and environmental degradation with national security. Our national security thinking is successful for our past and developed through trial and error. The climate change threat does not sit neatly in the ‘way we think’. Our approach to existential risks cannot be one of trial-and-error.

There is no opportunity to learn from errors. The reactive approach – see what happens, limit damages, and learn from experience – is unworkable. Rather, we must take a proactive approach. This requires foresight to anticipate new types of threats and a willingness to take decisive preventive action and to bear the costs (moral and economic) of such actions.

So how to mitigate and manage the risks presented by environmental degradation and climate change? Risk is widely understood and can be described by detailed mathematical models to assist decision-making. However, perception of risk and risk appetite vary individually as we are influenced by many factors like historical events, family, culture, beliefs, etc. Organisations are often able to describe a sophisticated mathematical risk process as a decision support tool but that assessment is still subject to human intervention and intuitive leadership. Thus, the description of risk practice is a fusion of mathematical modelling and human behaviour.

National security planning and operations employ sound well-developed process which identify vulnerability, risk and threat assessments, decisions and actions. This process itself is continually assessed and refined.

Climate change and environmental degradation have well developed support from scientific models, but the understanding of risk

and the necessary actions of mitigation and adaption are heavily debated, particularly in Australia. Yet again, it seems national security is simply incompatible with climate change and environmental degradation.

We cannot necessarily rely on the institutions, moral norms, social attitudes or national security policies that developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks. Existential risks are a different kind of beast. We might find it hard to take them as seriously as we should simply because we have not yet witnessed the full extent of such disasters.

New security frameworks / mindsets
As Donella Meadows noted, in systems thinking the point of most leverage is the mindset or paradigm out of which the system goals, power structures, rules and culture arise. Our climate is changing rapidly and is likely to do so in a non–linear way as self-re-enforcing feedbacks push the planet past thresholds where temperature can be stabilised. As the climate moves through these trajectories different security frameworks or mindsets are needed, as illustrated below.

The threat multiplier mindset
As outlined earlier in this article, national security agencies have framed climate change and environmental security challenges principally as a “threat multiplier”. In this framing climate change is seen as multiplying or accelerating existing threats. Relationships with environmental challenges are direct and linear. Sea level rise will impact on Defence bases as well as national infrastructure such as ports and airfields. Increase in extreme events will require an increase in disaster responses – placing concurrency pressures on national security capabilities. Increases in temperature may reduce human capability operating performance – with flow-on effects to training and operations.

However, while risks are identified there is little evidence of an understanding how environmental security risks may cascade or be transferred into other domains of national power. One obvious association is with energy transitions where the geopolitics of the new energy transformation may alter existing power balances. Intriguingly, Australia is well placed to become a new energy superpower, however our traditional five-eyes partners are not challenging us to take a greater strategic leadership role. Another obvious risk transfer is from the environment to the economy as the cost of disasters begin to bite, with the cost of natural disasters estimated at $33 billion per year by 2030.

Notwithstanding energy transformations and economic cost, the frame of climate change as a threat multiplier is one with which national security agencies are comfortable. This frame prompts no radical thinking as the lucky county mindset dominates and the environmental security challenge is seen as being within the adaptive capacities of existing security agencies.

The peace inhibitor mindset
Several Agency submissions to the Senate Inquiry Report on the ‘Implications of climate change for Australia’s national security’ (in particular, DoHA and Defence) did take a broader systems view where climate change and environmental security risks that intersect with other elements of national security, such as energy and economics, are identified, but this idea was not developed further – rather, it was relegated to the distant future.

Climate security risks were described impacting resources: food, water and energy. Food, water or energy shortages are further seen as potentially increasing probability of conflicts (internal or external) or contributing to mass migrations, further de-stabilising systems of global governance - similar to the destabilising effects of mass migration already seen in Europe. If these impacts are realised, climate and environmental risks might be more accurately thought of as a “peace inhibitor”.

Pressure on resources, especially the water resources will threaten conflict between nuclear armed powers such as India, Pakistan and China; all of which are very exposed to climate related risks.

Traditional security thinking is already pre-positioning to this risk framing in terms of walls and border security, sovereign capabilities, forward deterrence and conscious de-coupling from the global economy. While this may make some sense for the short term should the more catastrophic outcomes of climate change be realised (and they may be as early as 2050) it leads down a path to a “Mad Max” future where the ADF in the near future may be required to repel millions not thousands of potential immigrants fleeing a general collapse of global governance. How it will do so with reliance on those same global supply chains and economies for essential wealth, supplies and energy remains to be explained.

Navigating the mindsets
By focusing primarily on the threat multiplier traditional national security approaches may exacerbate rather than alleviate the challenge leading to mal-adapted responses or preventing global mitigation responses. New ways to frame tradeoffs are required. For example, a rapid transition to new energy coupled with the development of a Pan–Asian power grid anchored by Australia in the south and China in the north not only mitigates CO2 emissions but also provides south east Asian countries with the adaptive capacity to create water and food – reducing the risk of collapse and mass migration that would require traditional security responses. At roughly the cost of two to four new submarines this may provide a greater security dividend to the Australian people.

However, this requires a transition from enemy focused “rutting stag” security approaches which achieve security through force to something more subtle, achieving security through mutual interdependency. Are we up to the challenge?

The need for a bipartisan national security strategy
The issues raised in this article cannot be addressed by a single Government, Minister or Department. The lack of progress with any coherent energy or environment policy over the past six years is testament to that. This is a whole of nation challenge that has to addressed in close cooperation with other global partners. It is not just a Defence issue.

Australia does not currently have a National Security Strategy. We had one in 2013, but it has since faded from view to be replaced by stove piped, reactive, security policies. The Gillard Labor Government did launch its National Security Strategy in 2013, an Australian first according to the document. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Gillard failed to put her National Security Strategy to Parliament; it was not even tabled in the House. Despite the criticisms about the strategy, there were elements of it that reflected a level of maturity and completeness with regard to an understanding of what ‘national security’ actually needs to encompass.

The issues raised in this article lead to the conclusion that we need to resurrect the National Security Strategy and reinforce it if we are to face our climate and environmental challenges in a coherent manner.

Note: This article was produced by the Institute for Integrated Economics Research (IIER) – Australia. Board Members are Neil Greet, Dr Gary Waters, Anne Borzycki and John Blackburn AO.

This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of ADM. 

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