24 March 2022

Retired senior defence leaders name climate disruption as "clear and present danger", call for 2030 decarbonisation goal

by David Spratt

Seventeen senior retired Australian defence leaders have described climate disruption as an "existential threat" and a "clear and present danger", calling for accelerating action with a 2030 decarbonisation goal.

The call came in an open letter to Australia's political leaders, which was also published as a full-page statement in the national The Australian newspaper on 23 March.  Amongst the signatories are Admiral Chris Barrie, the former chief  of the Australian Defence Force, and Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn AO, the former deputy chief of the Royal Australian Air Force.   The letter is available here.

The statement is headed "The first duty of government is to protect the people, but on climate–security risks, Australia is missing in action", and says that Australia "has failed when it comes to climate change threats. Australia currently has no credible climate policy, leaving our nation unprepared for increasingly harsh impacts".   It calls upon all those offering themselves as political leaders in this election year "to make climate change a primary focus and commit to mobilising the resources necessary to address this clear and present danger".

It says that fossil fuel emissions must be "reduced to zero at emergency speed", and climate made "an immediate security priority, at the top of the national agenda, with a commitment for mobilisation and emergency action from all sides of politics". They say the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is wholly inadequate; and "decarbonisation must be reached as close to 2030 as possible". 

 The security leaders say that accelerating renewables to secure energy resilience in a conflicted world is critical for Australia. The invasion of Ukraine has also shown the fragility of energy supplies as energy prices surge, and demonstrates the need for more renewable energy, according to Air Vice-Marshal Blackburn: "Renewables are critical to energy supply resilience and national security in a more unstable world."

 According to Admiral Barrie, climate change has previously contributed to concurrent wheat crop failures in Ukraine, Russia, China and Australia which led to rising food prices in countries around the world and became  a key trigger for the Arab Spring and regional instability: “Now high energy and food prices triggered by the Ukraine invasion could contribute to social unrest in countries as far apart as Egypt and Indonesia, which is right on Australia’s doorstep,” Admiral Barrie said.

Concurrently, China is facing the worst crop conditions ever due to climate change. And a Chatham House analysis finds that Ukraine crisis could trigger cascading risks globally: "Experience from previous food price crises indicate even small interruptions to trade can result in runs on the market and rapid price inflation. In the case of this conflict, the trade interruption will be far from small because, between them, Russia and Ukraine export around one-quarter of all traded wheat, more than three-quarters of traded sunflower oil, and one-sixth of traded maize."

Days earlier, Deputy Primer Minister Barnaby Joyce had railed against the focus of young people on climate, saying in the wake of the floods it should be all about security.  But Admiral Barrie says that climate change will only make these kinds of occurrences more frequent, and "unless our political leaders take urgent action, we can expect to see increasing instability, conflict and forced migration from neighbouring nations and within our region.  It is not a matter of ‘climate versus security’ as has recently been suggested, but ‘climate and security’.”