04 August 2023

The Australian Government refuses to say what it knows about climate-security threats, so we gave policymakers a helping hand

By David Spratt

Last year the Australian Government asked the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) to assess climate-related security risks. Due to time constraints, ONI looked at the global and regional picture, but not the domestic one, and their report was given to the government last November.  

Eight months later, the Prime Minsters’ Office has decreed that the report is not to be released, even in a declassified form. This is contrary to the practice of the government that the prime minister likes to call our best ally, which regularly releases climate and security assessments, such as Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040. Likewise, the Pacific Islands Forum has just published a Pacific Climate Security Assessment Guide.

So Australia looks like the odd person out. Nobody else seems to have a problem telling the people who elected them what the biggest threat to their future well-being, health and human security looks like. 

And the reason for “going dark”? More than any other, it is because what ONI told the government very likely contradicts the official and vigorously prosecuted official line that China is the greatest threat to Australia. Even the US Defence Secretary acknowledges climate is an existential threat. As did a 2018 Australia Senate Inquiry. And the UN Secretary General. And leading scientists: “we are in a climate emergency… this is an existential threat to civilization. China is not, not even close. 

Top-10 risks in 10 years from WEF 20230 survey
The World Economic Forum each year surveys public and private sector global leaders on the biggest risk the world faces and publishes the results. In the Global Risks Report 2023, the survey finds that the biggest risks identified in the decade from now are overwhelmingly climate or climate related (see chart).

Now the big problem with the government’s “black hole” approach to climate-security risks is that with no declassified version of the ONI assessment having been released — even as a version of the Defence Strategic Review was made public — other political parties have not been briefed, nor have the relevant committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

How then can members of parliament discharge their duties and oversee policy-making and departmental performance in the defence, climate, immigration, intelligence and foreign affairs portfolios?  They can’t.

So Breakthrough thought we might help those parliamentarians understand what is likely in the ONI assessment, so this week we published a Briefing Note, What does Australia’s first climate and security risk assessment say?

The release got some good media coverage, including from The Guardian in Climate crisis: Australia must ready for ‘devastating’ regional disruption, MPs told, and coverage in the ABC RN Drive programme.

In summary, The Briefing Paper says that:

  • The Australian Government received its first climate and security risk assessment, carried out by the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), in late 2022.
  • The  assessment should inform policymakers and the public on the greatest threat to Australians’ future, but the government has refused to release a declassified version.
  • The ONI report is likely to have said that the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the risks are compounding and the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades.
  • In the Asia-Pacific region, states will fail and climate impacts will drive political instability, greater national insecurity and forced migration, and fuel conflict.
  • There will likely 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 Tibetan Plateau, encompassing India, Pakistan, China and south-east Asian nations.

Download What does Australia’s first climate and security risk assessment say?