Defence and climate change: a reply
4 Nov 2013|

Anthony Bergin and Anthony Press’ recent post ‘Defence and Climate Change‘ is right on the money. Defence needs to do more than it’s already doing to prepare the ADF to face the challenges of a warming planet. All of the authors’ recommendations should be taken on board. But I fear that Bergin and Press don’t go far enough in their post.

A warming climate and shifts in rainfall patterns are only part of the challenge that has begun to transform our planet. In fact, there’s nothing new about the climate changing—its documentation in the historical, anthropological and geologic record is widespread and should convince all of its existence. Its novelty is only in the eyes of our current generation whose memory doesn’t extend far enough into the past.

The greatest danger posed by climate change isn’t the warming or the changes in rainfall patterns. Rather it’s the effect these events will have on the fabric of society. The risks of climate change must be seen as a two-step process. First are the changes in the existing parameters of the physical world to which humanity has adapted. As these changes occur societies must adapt to the new environment. This has happened many times in the past in previous climate change events. Those societies that manage to adapt survive. Those that do not, don’t.

As I’ve written in the Small Wars Journal, humanity is on the cusp of a revolution that will have effects as great—if not greater—than those experienced in the past. As the effects of climate change take hold, societies will come under great pressure. Rising sea levels, shifting rainfall patterns and the acidification of oceans will all affect humanity’s access to resources, particularly those of food and water. The fabric holding some societies together will tear, resulting in chaos, war and the mass migration of desperate people.

Not only will climate change spark more wars, these will be more vicious than those we’ve come to know. In recent years the term ‘limited war’ has been much in vogue to describe wars that from some perspectives are less dangerous or perhaps ‘discretionary’. Unfortunately, the wars of the future are likely to be struggles for survival as societies seek the resources they need to exist, but can no longer provide for themselves due to reductions in the carrying capacity of their lands as a result of climate change.

In such a future, the primary mission for defence must remain warfighting. Australia will need a robust and resilient ADF to safeguard the nation in this more violent future. As Bergin and Press note, this resilience will best be secured by a whole-of-government response, of which Defence is just one lever. But, as is the case now, much of the ‘work’ will only be able to be done by the soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen of the ADF. I hope they’re ready.

Albert Palazzo is a senior research fellow at the Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army, Department of Defence or the Australian Government.