The ADF will have to deal with the consequences of climate change

The Albanese government has accepted a recommendation in the defence strategic review (DSR) that the Australian Defence Force be released from most of its domestic disaster response roles to concentrate on the increasing regional security risks.

This is welcome and likely means that the Commonwealth will significantly expand Australia’s civilian capacity to respond to climate-driven natural disasters.

The ADF’s role in domestic disasters has grown significantly in recent years, primarily because of more frequent and destructive disasters related to climate change and a shift in treating Defence, in particular the Army, as a primary responder rather than a secondary or last resort. While this has shown confidence in the ADF’s ability to respond to disasters, importantly the DSR found that this has ‘negatively affected force preparedness, readiness and combat effectiveness’.

Precisely what shape this enhanced national civilian capacity takes will become clearer in the months ahead. At a minimum, it could entail additional inducements for the states and territories to expand their capacities and additional support for existing volunteer agencies, such as Disaster Relief Australia, to help supplement emergency services.

But over the longer-term, filling the gap left by the withdrawal of the ADF from all but last-resort engagement in domestic disasters is likely also to require new infrastructure and equipment and significant additional staffing. This could be provided through the establishment of a national civilian service or staffing stand-by arrangements, enabling existing government employees and other Australians to be released from their jobs during crises to scale-up the Commonwealth’s response capacity. The stand-by arrangements would include emergency response training between disasters, in much the same way as Defence reservists are trained during peacetime.

The DSR’s climate recommendations are focussed on empowering the ADF to do what a defence force is primarily designed to do—deter wars and win wars should deterrence fail. That said, freeing-up the ADF from domestic disasters will enable it to scale up its role in responding to regional humanitarian disasters, which are also becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change.

Until recently, the defence community has generally underestimated how rapidly these climate impacts will begin appearing and the cascading consequences in areas such as food security, population movements and for political and regional security. As the climate continues to warm, the ADF’s regional climate-related missions are likely to evolve rapidly from humanitarian and disaster response to stabilisation and conflict prevention.

The scale of this emerging challenge might be revealed later this year. Two climate events, an El Nino and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, or IOD, will likely form in the months ahead. Together, they would contribute to very hot and dry weather in our region. But much of Southeast Asia is already experiencing a record-setting heat wave, perhaps the worst ever recorded in April, while oceans are now at record high temperatures, even with the cooling effect of recent La Niñas. If these trends continue, and a strong El Nino emerges, the impacts in our region, including in geopolitically pivotal places like Indonesia, could be catastrophic.

With the clear synergies between defence and climate, the DSR’s devotion of a chapter to the climate threat is encouraging, in particular the clarity that climate change is now a national security issue.

‘Climate change,’ it states, ‘will increase the challenges for Australia and Defence, including increased humanitarian assistance and disaster relief tasks at home and abroad … It could lead to mass migration, increased demands for peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and intrastate and interstate conflict.’

Indeed, this inclusion of climate as a core national security issue along with the Government’s inclusion of the Minister for Climate Change and Energy on the National Security Committee of Cabinet, finally formalises the then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s vision in the 2008 National Security Strategy that climate was ‘an area of emerging consequence which will require the formal incorporation of climate change within Australia’s national security policy and analysis process’.

Less encouraging, given its lack of clarity, is the DSR’s oddly cautious formulation: ‘If climate change accelerates over the coming decades, it has the potential to significantly increase risk in our region.’

There is little scientific doubt that it will accelerate with very serious regional consequences, particularly given that our immediate region is a hot spot of overlapping climate hazards and vulnerable countries. This overly cautious line may reflect the many cooks involved in ensuring a public version of a classified report is released expeditiously, but the DSR formulation is particularly odd given that the review team was likely briefed on the recent classified Office of National Intelligence climate and security risk assessment, which, if the recent comments of government ministers are any indication, would have left few doubts about the scale and urgency of the challenge.

Regardless of language inconsistency, the fusing of climate with defence and intelligence, through the Government’s very strong focus on climate change, optimises the opportunity to learn the lessons of previous security and defence strategies, including the Defence White Paper produced by the Rudd Government some 14 years ago. That 2009 White Paper was ahead of its time, but also illustrates why the DSR’s new biennial National Defence Strategy process is much needed to ensure inevitable fact changes and new data can be factored rapidly into defence policy.

For example, the white paper concluded that ‘large-scale strategic consequences of climate change are not likely to be felt before 2030’. That prediction was clearly wrong. Major climate disruptions are already affecting multiple regions simultaneously. Indeed, the systemic impacts of climate change will fundamentally undermine Australia’s national security interests, including with respect to the other security challenges that receive far greater attention in the DSR than climate.

That is why we shouldn’t be asking if climate change will accelerate and increase regional risks, but rather determining how to reduce the consequences of the inevitable crises that will befall the region.