As Asia faces climate change upheaval, how will Australia respond?

Across Asia, climate change could cut agriculture in half by 2030. What will Australia do to help? Gabriele Quaglia

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Here, Dr Tim Stephens looks at how climate change could affect security in Asia as the world warms.

It should come as no surprise that Australia is very vulnerable to climate change. Across much of the continent, CSIRO has found that we can expect much higher temperatures, more frequent heat waves, more intense storms and floods, extended dry periods and drought, more intense bushfires, and (by the coast) rising sea levels, stronger storms, storm surges and flooding.

But as a technologically advanced, economically prosperous, and politically stable nation with strong legal institutions, Australia is well placed to adapt. We have a relatively small population compared with the vast Australian continent and its maritime estate, stretching across a range of climatic regions and supports a variety of ecosystem types.

Put simply, when things get bad, we can move.

In a vulnerable region

But the image of plucky Australian resilience and self-reliance in the face of global environmental crisis sits in contrast with the reality. When it comes to climate change and security, no country is an island.

Climate change may set off a compounding set of regional and global crises which will have major impacts upon Australia. While Australia shares no land, and few maritime, boundaries with other states, we are situated on the periphery of the densely populated and politically complex Asian region. Here, many states are assessed to be extremely vulnerable to climate hazards.

Australia’s future is inevitably tied to the way these nations and Australia itself respond to the security challenges posed by climate change in the Asian century.

At least initially, much of Australia’s attention may need to be focused on the Pacific. Climate change threatens already struggling Pacific microstates. Australia is likely to be drawn into situations akin to that in the Solomon Islands in 2003, where the institutions of government crumbled and the country was on the verge of becoming a “failed state”.

However the main game in terms of security challenges over the longer term will be played out in Asia.

The effects of climate change could push our neighbours into becoming “failed states”. Australian Civil-Military Centre

Climate change will threaten Asia’s food and water security, and this will have spillover effects for security and stability in the region. Under most scenarios, agricultural production in Asia will decline substantially, perhaps by up to half of current levels within 30 years. This decline will be driven by several factors, including steep reductions in water availability as temperatures rise and glaciers melt, cutting off a major source of water after initial flooding.

Alan Dupont has noted that China’s response to this problem illustrates how climate change within an individual nation may have regional security implications.

To safeguard its water supplies, China is damming the Mekong. This is reducing the amount of water available to downstream states: Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. China also has diversion designs over another major transboundary river, the Brahmaputra, with major implications for the other major player in the Asian century, India.

Climate change is having a litany of impacts in the Asian region. These include declining food security, water shortages, heat stress in major population centres, increased prevalence and geographical reach of disease, and more extreme weather events including floods and cyclones.

These have corresponding social, economic, human security and national security implications. There is the prospect for food riots, internal instability, civil disorder, and internal and transboundary migration. In most cases climate change is not a destabilising factor in and of itself, but is rather a “threat multiplier”, exacerbating underlying problems.

In the medium term, the prospect of a “climate war” can be discounted. But in the longer term the prospects of major disruption and destabilisation leading to “failed states” is a virtual certainty. In this strategic vision of the future, climate change is an entropic force, pulling societies and institutions apart, rather than a catalyst for traditional inter-state conflict.

As the US Department of Defense put it in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, “while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may accelerate instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world”.

Responding to the climate security challenge

As a child in the 1980s, I recall well the threat of nuclear Armageddon. It loomed large in the public consciousness, even here in the antipodes.

Strategic analysts think climate change is a threat every bit as serious as a nuclear holocaust. The Doomsday Clock, maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago, symbolises just how close the world remains to global disaster. It was moved forward to 11.55pm in January this year. This was in part in recognition of the lack of global political action to address climate change.

Glaciers could melt, then dry up, leaving millions without water. Hug Cirici

There has been growing attention by governments, universities and research institutes to the security dimensions of climate change. The United Nations Security Council, which has the task of maintaining international peace and security, has discussed climate change twice, in 2007 and 2011 (although on both occasions the Council failed to adopt a strong statement on the issue).

However the discussion of climate change and security has largely been confined to governments, militaries and think tanks, and has not permeated public debate in any significant way. Mainstream discussion of climate change has tended to fixate on quotidian issues - such as the modest impact of Australia’s carbon price on the cost of living - rather than higher order questions including the very capacity of Australia to survive into the next century as a nation state.

Time for a conversation about climate security

In a groundbreaking review in 2006, Alan Dupont and Graeme Pearman set out the security implications for Australia from climate change. Their analysis has only become more pertinent as the rate and severity of current and projected climate change has since worsened, and quite substantially so.

Dupont and Pearman made several recommendations that remain germane, and which have only been partially heeded by government. The recommendation that the intelligence community undertake a review of the climate risk to national security was taken up in a classified Office of National Assessment review in 2008. (This was not the first time the ONA had looked at the issue: it reported on the matter back in 1981.) Yet only limited progress has been made on their other recommendations.

There is still a limited capacity in our institutions to make hard-nosed strategic assessments about the impact of climate change in Australia and the Asia Pacific Region. And while the Australian government has begun the task of reducing Australia’s emissions through the Clean Energy Future emissions trading scheme, these are but baby steps towards the decarbonisation of the Australian economy.

Above all the Australian government appears fearful of having a frank discussion about climate change and security. While there would be no merit in invoking images of invading hordes from the North, or a modern-day Brisbane line, it is time for a conversation about how Australia can be kept secure from the impacts of climate change in the Asian century.

This is part fourteen of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part One: Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Ten: Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

Part Thirteen: Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia