Climate change an 'existential security risk' to Australia, Senate inquiry says
Threat is not a possible future one but one endangering Australia now, parliament told Sign up to receive the top stories in Australia every day at noonThe Senate report says climate change threatens Australians' health, businesses and the economy.Photograph: The Washington Post/Washington Post/Getty Images
Climate change is a "current and existential national security risk" to Australia, a Senate inquiry has told parliament, one that could inflame regional conflicts over food, water and land, and even imperil life on Earth. The Senate committee inquiry into the implications of climate change for Australia's national security recommended an increase in foreign aid to be dedicated to climate change mitigation and adaptation in the region, as well as a government white paper on climate security, Department of Defence emissions targets and a dedicated climate security post within the Department of Home Affairs.
The inquiry, which released its report on Thursday afternoon, heard that the security risk of climate change was not a possible future threat but one that endangers Australia and its region now. The Asia-Pacific was the region "most vulnerable" to the security and humanitarian impacts of climate change, the committee heard, and faced an "existential threat". An existential threat was defined as "one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development".
The committee report said climate change threatened Australians' health, and the viability of communities, businesses and the economy. Climate change was heightening the severity of natural hazards, increasing the spread of infectious diseases and increasing water insecurity, and threatening agriculture. Sherri Goodman, a former US deputy undersecretary of defence in the Clinton administration and founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board, told the committee climate change was a "threat multiplier", exacerbating existing conflicts over water and other resources, and that it posed "a direct threat to the national security of Australia".
"The problem also is not a distant one in the future but it's now. We are experiencing this in regular sunny-day flooding at military bases in the United States and in changes in the Arctic, forcing the first wave of displaced persons from villages in the Arctic." The Climate Council told the committee climate change was "already contributing to increases in the forced migration of people within and between nations, as well as playing a role in heightening social and political tensions, flowing onto conflict and violence".
The Australian government has recognised the security implications posed by climate change. Its seventh national communication on climate change to the United Nations in December highlighted that Australia was "already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate, particularly changes associated with increases in temperature, the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events, extreme fire weather and drought". It noted "communities in the Torres Strait are already being impacted by rising sea levels and many of the region's coral reefs have been severely impacted by increased sea surface temperatures".
And the Department of Defence agreed climate change had the potential to worsen existing conflicts. "When climate impacts are combined with ethnic or other social grievances, they can contribute to increased migration, internal instability or intrastate insurgencies, often over greater competition for natural resources. These developments may foster terrorism or cross-border conflict."
The Senate committee heard that acute climate disruption - in particular long-running and severe droughts - exacerbated conflicts in Mali and Syria, contributing to the destabilisation of fragile states. In Australia's region, the Australian Council for International Development said: "For Pacific nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Micronesia, climate change is already a genuine existential threat with the capacity to diminish their livelihoods and even erase their states' territorial footprints." The Senate committee noted Australia does not have an overarching climate security strategy.
Research Director for Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration David Spratt said there was a disconnect between the evidence presented to the inquiry and the recommendations that emerged from it. "Existential risk management requires brutally honest articulation of the risks, opportunities and the response time frame. At the moment we are knowingly locking in an existential disaster without being prepared to articulate that fact ... at least this Senate inquiry report is significant for having broken the ice, but it should be so much more."
Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the defence personnel who appeared before the committee "engaged deeply with climate change science and were in no doubt that a warming world is a more dangerous world".
"What this inquiry has brought home to me is that when people choose to engage with the climate science, without any partisan or ideological blinkers, they quickly understand the seriousness of the challenge and decide to act.
We have seen that the Australian Defence Force is changing how it does things because it is taking climate change seriously, but we have a government that is doing nothing to reduce emissions to actually reduce the threat of climate change itself."