Australia’s recent bushfires and our current healthcare crisis have tested the resilience of our governments and communities and demanded coordinated responses at national, state and local levels. In an age of climate change and other global environmental hazards, the need for whole-of-government coordination is likely to become even greater.
Although it has not yet been a principal focus of climate change planning in Australia, ‘climate security’ is fast becoming an important area of study. As part of a project funded by the Department of Defence, we have just completed a review of climate resilience issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
A central conclusion from our study is that Australia will struggle to maintain its national security in the face of climate change unless government departments and agencies are well coordinated and can work collaboratively with neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Effective coordination and collaboration will be needed to respond to the kind of threats climate change poses to Australia’s sovereign borders and territories, and to our existing national security provisions.
With increasing climate extremes, we can expect communities in vulnerable places, particularly in poorer countries, to become displaced from their homes. As a result, we expect a greater number of migrants seeking both documented and irregular refuge across the Indo-Pacific region. ‘Climate refugees’ will likely increase tensions within and between neighbouring communities, and place increasing pressure on Australia’s Defence and Border Forces.
Extreme climate hazards (including the increased prevalence of vector-borne diseases) can weaken government authority, particularly in countries with already fragile governance systems or high levels of corruption. Governments lacking public legitimacy become vulnerable when extreme events intensify socioeconomic inequalities, or compromise food and water security or access to health services. These pressures can increase the potential for conflict within and between countries. Following climate disasters, we also expect organised crime and terrorist organisations to take advantage of civil unrest, often at the expense of vulnerable communities.
The impacts on national security will not only come from abroad. We know from the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis that extreme events can stretch Australia’s health and emergency services beyond their limits. Our defence forces are often called to assist with the provision of equipment and personnel to help respond to these emergency situations. Our defence forces, however, have limited resources and operational remit. When we call on the Department of Defence to respond to domestic emergencies, this limits its capacity to protect sovereign borders and limits its role in assisting and collaborating with our international neighbours.
Why is collaboration important for climate security?
Climate change is caused by, and will impact upon, many areas of human life. Effective adaptation will therefore demand the concerted efforts of many government departments. Currently, climate adaptation-related federal responsibilities fall mainly between the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, with support from the Department of Defence in times of emergency. Much of the planning that is done, and the resources needed to prepare for and respond to extreme events, however, arise at state and local government levels. Yet, climate change adaptation is such a wide-ranging issue that other areas of government will need to consider climate risks and take coordinated action.
Collaboration between government departments and agencies with overlapping areas of policy interest can be challenging, which means that a central coordinating body could be useful. When working with international partners too, coordination and collaboration can be hindered by contrasting perspectives on the problems to be addressed. In developing countries, for instance, managing long-term risks may be constrained in favour of emergency response, or they may be considered secondary to more immediate concerns for developing public health and education services.
Considering the relative stability of our governance structures, we argue that Australia can and should play a leading role in ensuring the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific region. Our research highlights the importance of the ADF as a key agency for maintaining climate security and enhancing domestic climate adaptation. Managing climate security in a strategically coordinated way will demand partnership across many government departments; with our international neighbours like NZ, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea; and with indigenous communities. Governments should also cooperate with the private sector, especially the insurance industry, and with non-government organisations that assist developing countries in South Asia and the Pacific.
The current absence of government coordination on climate change adaptation and security issues increasingly makes Australian governments exceptional when compared with our neighbours and with similarly developed countries around the world. Thinking about climate impacts and their effects in a strategic way is the best means of ensuring the safety and security of the Australian public and of the Indo-Pacific region.
Note: Dr Peter Tangney, Associate Professor Cassandra Star, Dr Claire Nettle, Associate Professor Joshua Newman and Associate Professor Beverley Clarke are researchers in the Climate and Sustainability Policy Research (CASPR) Group at Flinders University.