04 May 2023

Are climate–security risks too hot to handle for the Albanese government?

Heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan, June 29, 2015.  Credit:Asim Afeez/Bloomberg

by David Spratt 

[An abridged version of this article was first published by Pearls&Irritations]

The Australian government is keen to talk about defence, big submarines, China and national security. And renewable energy, big batteries, electric cars and big hydrogen. But put the two together — security and climate — and an odd thing happens. When it comes to the biggest threat to the nation, that of climate-related risks to human and regional security, there is a big black hole in the government’s discourse.  

When a declassified version of the Defence Security Review (DSR) was released on 24 April, there was a glaring omission. A short chapter on climate change focussed exclusively on domestic climate risks, specifically emergency responses to climate-warming-enhanced extreme events such as bushfires and floods, and why the defence forces should not be amongst the first responders.

There was hardly a word about the much bigger climate-related security risk across the Indo-Pacific region: states and alluvial deltas and cities inundated by rising seas, a chronic water shortage and declining crop yields even as food demand increases, social breakdown and the forced displacement of millions of people. There was nothing in the DSR to demonstrate that the government understood or was preparing for climate-related security risks in the region, or their mitigation.

When the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group in 2021 advocated for a climate and security risk assessment as a first step in dealing with the biggest threat to Australia’s people and to the region, the Albanese-led opposition was enthusiastic. The idea was incorporated into Labor election policy, and a climate-security risk assessment was ordered from the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) soon after winning office in May 2022. 

ONI’s assessment reportedly focused on the region and did not include domestic risks, but since it was delivered to the government in late 2022 not a substantial word has been said about it.  No declassified version of the ONI assessment has been released, even as a version of the DSR was made public. Other political parties have not been briefed, nor have the relevant Senate, House of Representatives or Joint Standing Committees of the parliament.

In a state of imposed ignorance, how can members of parliament discharge their duties to oversee policy-making and departmental performance in the defence, climate, immigration, intelligence and foreign affairs portfolios?

It is almost as if the government sees climate-related security risks as an astronomical black hole. Fly too close to the issue, the event horizon or black hole boundary, and you disappear into the endless void, never to be seen again? 

Does the government fear that if it publicly elaborates what its intelligence agencies told it about the chaos, social breakdown and conflict of a hotter world, it risks losing control of a manicured framing of its climate change policies as efficacious? Get too close to the realities of existential, security-related climate consequences, and you arrive at the boundary of an uncontrolled event where the laws of conventional politics and policy-making break down?

By the government’s lack of public reaction, it is a reasonable assumption that ONI’s assessment provides a brutal account of the threats, as it needed to be given the evidence. Eyes opened wide with a rush of adrenalin when the penny dropped that climate risks were altogether of a different category than a narrative about solar and wind and batteries, and yes, the expansion of the gas industry. 

Did it become clear that ONI’s assessment undermined the government preferred climate narrative and should not see the light of day? A government keen to display its national security credentials promotes a nuclear submarines, AUKUS and China agenda, but the biggest threat of regional climate disruption exists only by its absence, as a void in the middle of this security policy debate.

So what did the ONI report say that has led to the cone of silence being lowered over their assessment?

A comparable assessment of climate risks is that undertaken by the UK’s premier, government-funded security think-tank, Chatham House, in its 2021 climate risk assessment. At the very least, the ONI report would need to be consistent with the Chatham House conclusions, which in essence were that the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the risks are compounding and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades.

The UK assessment said that impacts likely to be locked in for the period 2040–50 unless emissions drastically decline before 2030 — which is very unlikely to happen on current indications — include:

  • A 30% drop in crop yields by 2050, while food demand will be 50% higher;   
  • The average proportion of global cropland affected by severe drought (greater than 50% yield reductions) will likely rise to 32% a year;
  • Almost 700 million people a year by 2040 are likely to be exposed to droughts of at least six months’ duration, nearly double the global historic annual average; and
  • Cascading climate impacts will “drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict”.

Climate impacts are happening faster than forecast; the bushfires of Australia’s 2019-20 “black summer” were of an intensity not projected to occur till the end of the century. According to Prof. David Karoly, Australia today is experiencing the “worst case” climate scenarios for 2030. Many system-level positive feedbacks are not fully accounted for in climate models, and certain important consequences of warming, including ice sheet collapse, sea level rise, and the rise in extreme weather events are poorly represented in the models. 

A recent, landmark report found that the world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40% by the end of this decade. Losing glacial mass, the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau will no longer be able to serve as the water towers of Asia. If the world continues on its high-emissions trajectory, as is likely, then in the end we can expect “a substantial — that is, nearly 100% loss — of water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau" which will imperil the water supplies for "central Asia, Afghanistan, Northern India, Kashmir and Pakistan by the middle of the century" says Prof. Michael E. Mann.

India and China, where groundwater levels are already dropping precariously, will face catastrophic water shortages. China is already a net importer of food, with 20% of the global population but only 7% of potable water. The dry subtropics will slowly desertify, including in northern China, Central Asia and the Middle East. Extreme heat events, beyond the human capacity to endure, will increasingly strike across Asia, including in Pakistan and northern India. But perhaps also in south-east Asia. Droughts will become more frequent and intense; cyclones and floods more damaging.

With food demand outstripping supply, prices will rise sharply and the poorest and more vulnerable will be most affected, as is the case in East Africa and across the Sahel today. The pattern is familiar: food shortages and riots, social breakdown, militarisation of the emergency, starvation, mass forced displacement, millions in camps fleeing conflict, and a growing inability to fund food relief programs or build resilience for an even hotter climate. 

The rate of warming is accelerating and so will the rate of sea-level, amplified by crucial polar ice sheets passing their tipping points. Asia is the most vulnerable region in the world for inundation. The lower Mekong rice bowl is already salinating, low-lying Pacific islands will increasingly become non-viable and some of the world’s biggest coastal cities —  including Shanghai, Mumbai and Bangkok — are highly vulnerable, as is Bangladesh.

How will all this play out?  The analysis is not easy. Physical climate impacts and system-level changes compound and cascade, and their non-linearity makes projections difficult. Translating those physical changes into social and security consequences is an imprecise task. What we do know is that there will be outcomes that virtually no-one will see coming, such as happened with drought and desertification in eastern Syria compounding with the dynamics of the Arab Spring to unleash a war in Syria that displaced half its population; and half of them spilling into neighbouring countries and the EU bloc, precipitating a cascading political crisis.

So the security consequences are in a way radically unknown, but here is a sketch of some plausible outcomes:

  • Social crises in which rising food prices as a consequence of growing shortages lead to domestic protests, social instability, internal displacement and/or forced migration. Imagine a dynamic similar to the Arab Spring spreading across Central and South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, for example.
  • Severe economic jolts caused by conflict, labor displacement and lower productivity, inundation and destruction of economic infrastructure, and disruption to supply chains, including in the South China Sea.
  • A worsening of extreme and concurrent climate events with impacts beyond the response capacity of national governments; and increasing opportunities for China to lend a helping hand to vulnerable states, especially as Australia’s disaster relief capacity is underfunded and overwhelmed. 
  • A further retreat to authoritarian and hyper-nationalist politics, the diminution of instruments of regional cooperation, and increased risks of regional conflict, including over shared water resources from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, encompassing India, Pakistan, China and south-east Asia nations. 
  • State instability and failure in both Asia and the Pacific, including in some of the most populous nations, especially those with semi-democratic governments and existing insurgencies either domestic or in neighbouring states.
  • Increasing repressive measures by the state apparatus directed towards peasants, workers and the poor rising up against food  and energy shortages, with Australia called upon to protect such “fragile” states by bolstering their repressive capacities.
  • Fracturing of the regional anti-China alliance being sculptured by the United States.
  • Refugee/forced displacement crises magnitudes greater than the world has hitherto experienced.

ONI, with its extensive resources, has the capacity to paint a bigger and more complete picture, and it is one that needs to see the light of day in order to understand and mitigate the risks.

If we don’t know what ONI assessed, the Australian people and its economic institutions will plunge into a future dominated by climate-related security risks in a state of ignorance, way past the event horizon.