23 August 2023

Australia’s greatest security threat is a Canberra secret

by David Spratt, first published at The Canberra Times and Newcastle Herald

It's a no-brainer: China is the greatest threat to Australians' future.

The government and the opposition and the Sinophobic commentators tell us so. Often. 

Then there is AUKUS, the Quad, the endless regional hand-shaking, more joint military exercises, nuclear-powered submarines and upgraded US bases in Australia's north.

But there is a much greater security threat that the government seems determined to keep secret.

The World Economic Forum each year surveys public and private sector global leaders on the biggest risk the world faces and publishes the results. Their 2023 survey finds that the biggest three risks in the  decade from now were all climate-related, whilst "geo-economic confrontation" (read China) came in ninth.

In 2021, the respected UK think tank Chatham House analysed the risks of climate disruption and came to a startling conclusion: global demand for food would increase 50 per cent by 2050, while crop yields would fall 20 to 30 per cent due to drought and desertification, extreme heat and chronic water shortages. 

The average proportion of global cropland affected by severe drought would likely rise to 32 per cent a year by 2050, and in Australia closer to 40 per cent a year. 

The report concluded that cascading climate impacts will "drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict".

US intelligence agency reports identify south and central Asia, the Pacific small island states and Indonesia as "highly vulnerable countries" of concern for climate disruption. South Asia, China and Indonesia are identified by the World Resources Institute as countries where water stress will be "extremely high" by 2040.

Retired Admiral Chris Barrie, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, has said repeatedly that brutal climate impacts will produce state instability and failure in both Asia and the Pacific, including in some of the most populous nations. This is especially true for those with semi-democratic governments and existing insurgencies, either domestically or in neighbour states.

There will be 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 the Tibetan plateau. This would encompass India, Pakistan, China and south-east Asian nations.

Given these prospects, it was a welcome relief that the Albanese government shortly after coming to office ordered Australia's first climate-security risk assessment. This was delivered by the Office of National Intelligence to cabinet in November 2022.

Since then the Prime Ministers' Office has refused to release a declassified version of the report, despite the fact that our allies have released declassified versions of their climate-security analyses.

Nor has anyone in the government been willing to speak publicly about the main findings, or the issue more broadly.

A federal government cone of silence has descended over the greatest threat to the human security of Australians, their wellbeing, health and safety in a hotter world. If a government's first duty is to "protect the people", surely the first step is to level with them about the risks we face. 

It seems that even parliamentarians, including those who sit on the foreign affairs and defence committees, have not been fully briefed on the national intelligence report. 

It is inconceivable that MPs and senators could do their job of formulating and reviewing policy and performance on this greatest of all threats if the national security committee of cabinet will not share with them intelligence analysis on the form and severity of that risk.

Orders by both the Greens and Pocock for the production of the report to the Senate were voted down, with Labor joining with the Coalition to oppose the move. Senator Pocock said that "we are not getting an open and transparent conversation about the big issues of risk", whilst the Greens said the security report would help parliamentarians to "weigh up predicted wars, water shortages and supply chain collapses against every new coal and gas approval".

Labor's resistance to revealing the intelligence office findings has two likely causes. First, that the report's frank intelligence assessment has deeply shocked cabinet members, exposing the gross inadequacy of the government's current climate stance; and secondly, that it undermines their preferred security narrative focusing on China.

Concealing the intelligence analysis is the opposite of good security policy governance. It means we face a threat that we cannot even talk about.