It’s the headline you never thought you’d read. But we should’ve seen it coming.
The first signs of trouble were similar to those 78 years ago, when Imperial Japan became the first foreign power to launch direct attacks on modern Australia. The steady gain of power in the South Pacific, eroding the defences of small island nations until it conquered them entirely. It was a violation of that basic foundation of Australian strategy – preventing non-aligned powers from gaining a foothold in our region – but this time, we were too slow to react.
This time, Australia was economically dependent on the encroaching superpower. That dependence blinded us. Warnings came time and again from our neighbours and from others outside government, but it all fell on deaf ears.
And so the superpower quietly eroded our defences. Politicians from both sides received donations from business types with murky ties, massive investments in infrastructure won influence and friends in the right places: all strings that were pulled to draw curtains over the threat, even as it grew and grew.
We even acknowledged the superpower’s steady encroachment towards our territory, but we chose appeasement. We reminded ourselves that we had powerful friends who could do more than us, and would do more.
Meanwhile, the money kept flowing. “The economy is more important,” leaders said. “Australian jobs depend on it.”
Appeasement weakened our strategic position. When war eventually broke out, we were taken entirely by surprise. The superpower mounted simultaneous assaults across the country, taking out power lines, disrupting telecommunications and cutting off major highways. Entire towns were destroyed virtually overnight as thick smoke rose in great plumes, blanketing lost lives in ash.
The government mobilized the military, but the assault was so great that the ADF was forced to call on reserve troops for the first time in history. Industries and homes were wiped out, hospitals overwhelmed. The town of Eden, a major deep water port not far from Canberra, couldn’t be defended. Warships evacuated thousands by sea as the assault cut off supply lines up and down the east coast.
Help came from allies, but it was too late. The death toll had already grown and kept growing as civilians were left alone to fight back against the assault.
Now imagine if this story were about China. There are enough similarities: the slow and steady growth of power, our dependence on powerful friends to take action, and the economic benefits of appeasement. Some would argue our leaders have been blinded by naïve assumptions as they prioritise wealth over security.
But this isn’t about China. It’s about climate change.
Climate change is the world’s third superpower. It is casting the future of our planet, steadily conquering small island states, opening new trade routes, reshaping economies, paralysing domestic politics, influencing voting patterns, shifting coastlines and sculpting Australia’s fundamental strategic outlook.
Debating whether climate change is real is akin to arguing whether the Earth is round: reality and its consequences exist regardless. Debating whether Australia is too small to have a global effect is also redundant: Australian coal exports are set to contribute to 17 per cent of global emissions by 2030. That’s the strategic equivalent of selling uranium to North Korea. It’s the line from HBO’s Chernobyl: the willingness to ignore facts incurs a debt to the truth that must one day be paid.
The government is willing to spend $200 billion in the largest recapitalisation of Australia’s defence industry since WW2, fuelled by valid concerns about the rise of China. Indeed, if China or any other foreign power had inflicted the damage wrought on Australia these last few months, the government would be willing to put the economy on a war footing to fight and win.
Yet it is unwilling to spend more than $3.5 billion on equally valid concerns about the rise of climate change. That’s roughly the cost of a single Attack class submarine. Remember, we’re buying 12.
Chamberlain spoke of ‘peace for our time’ less than a year before the outbreak of war with Germany. PM Scott Morrison spoke of ‘needless anxiety’ just three months before unprecedented bushfires fuelled by a drier, warmer climate killed dozens of Australians, destroyed thousands of homes and turned an area the size of England into ash.
Our policy of appeasement towards the planet’s third superpower has built a debt to the truth. How much are we willing to pay?