17 May 2018

Senate report recognises climate change as existential risk, but fails to draw the obvious conclusions

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on climate and security risks
by David Spratt

Climate change is “a current and existential national security risk”, according to an Australian Senate report released on Thursday 17 May. It says an existential risk is “one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development”. These are strong words.

The report by the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee follows an Inquiry into the Implications of Climate Change for Australia’s National Security. Whilst many of the findings accord with the growing international recognition of climate change as a “threat multiplier” or an “accelerant to instability”, the inquiry’s recommendations lack a sense of urgency, especially since the “current existential risk” is being triggered today by the Australian Government’s insistence on  expanding the use of fossil fuels.

On the positive side, the report:
  • Accepts the view of leading US expert, Sherri Goodman, whose visit to Australia in April 2017 was a catalyst for the inquiry, of retired defence chief Admiral Chris Barrie, and others, that climate change is “a threat multiplier... exacerbating existing threats to human security, including geopolitical, socio-economic, water, energy, food and health challenges that diminish resilience and increase the likelihood of conflict”.

  • Recognises that Australia and its neighbours are in the region most exposed to climate impacts, especially the Pacific Island countries and territories  As a consequence, Australia has a growing responsibility for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

  • Recognises that climate change is threatening the health of Australian, their communities, businesses and the economy; heightening the severity of natural hazards; increasinging the spread of infectious diseases; and creating growing water insecurity threats to agriculture. 

  • Catalogues the challenges Australia’s defence forces will face, from rising sea levels to more hostile conditions for training and combat, and demands for more domestic as well as overseas emergency relief.

  • Notes the failure so far to adopt a fully-integrated, whole-of-government approach to climate-security risks.

  • Draws attention to the inadequacy of Australia’s emissions-reduction commitments, noting  Ms Goodman’s evidence that: “Whilst the Paris climate accord’s goal are ‘keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels [and] to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C’, the present commitment by governments will result in warming of 3°C or more. Such an outcome would have national security consequences so severe that some nations would cease to exist and the viability of many others would be severely challenged.”

But there is a complete disconnect between the report’s findings and its recommendations. The main recommendations are procedural: the needs for a climate security white paper (which would at least keep the government’s eye on the subject); the development of a national climate, health and well-being plan; the release of Defence assessments of the climate risks to its facilities; the bureaucratic elevation of the issue by the creation of a dedicated climate security leadership position in the Home Affairs Portfolio and a dedicated senior leadership position in the Department of Defence.

It also recommends that national security agencies increase their climate security knowledge and capability, an oblique recognition that these agencies are embarrassingly deficient in climate and security analytical capacity, in part due to their kowtowing to the government’s demotion of climate issues.

There is a recommendation for additional money and foreign aid to “provide further funding for international climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction measures, in addition to the existing aid budget, to the extent that financial circumstances allow”. This stands in stark contrast to repeated cuts to Australia’s foreign aid, including in last week’s budget, and to the reduction in climate action overall.

The inquiry is right to recognise climate change as an existential risk. In this sense, it is ahead of the large climate advocacy organisations, the national security agencies and the Australia academic community, who are laggards in articulating such risks. Indeed, it was Mark Crosweller, the Director General of Emergency Management Australia, Sherri Goodman the expert witness from the US, and the former senior Shell executive and emissions trading advisor to the Howard government, Ian Dunlop, who put the issue of existential climate security risks on the inquiry’s agenda.

At present, the 2015 Paris Agreement commitments by various nations, if implemented, would result in planetary warming of more than 3°C by 2100, and when carbon-cycle feedbacks which are now becoming active are taken into account, the resultant warming is around 5°C of warming. Scientists say warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90% and the World Bank reports “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible”.

A 2007 study by two US national security think tanks, “The Age of Consequences” concluded that even 3°C of warming and a 0.5 metre sea-level rise would likely lead internationally and within nations to “outright chaos”, and “nuclear war is possible”, emphasising how “massive nonlinear events in the global environment give rise to massive nonlinear societal events”.

The senate inquiry should have followed through on the consequences of such risks. Existential risks require a particular approach to risk management. They are not amenable to the reactive (learn from failure) approach of conventional risk management, and we cannot necessarily rely on the institutions, moral norms, or social attitudes developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks. Because the consequences are so severe, even for an honest, truth-seeking, and well-intentioned investigator it is difficult to think and act rationally in regard to existential risks.

The Senate inquiry has fallen victim to this problem, as has happened so often with Australian climate and energy policy. But time has now run out.

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, which is a breach of the Senator’s fiduciary responsibility to the Australian community.  At least this Senate inquiry report is significant for having broken the ice, but it should be so much more.