The capacity of the Australian Defence Force and other key agencies must be increased urgently to enable them to deal simultaneously with climate-driven disasters at home and in the region while countering worsening security threats, food shortages and mass people movements.
This grim warning is delivered by climate change specialist Robert Glasser in a report, The rapidly emerging crisis on our doorstep. An internationally respected climate specialist, Glasser was previously the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.
He now heads ASPI’s new Climate and Security Policy Centre established to help increase Australians’ understanding of the cascading effects of rapidly increasing temperature rises including flooding, hunger caused by a sharp reduction in crop sizes and declining fish stocks, conflict and mass people movements.
Glasser says Australia urgently needs to think about political, economic and security tipping points generated by climate change. ‘Any one of the increasing risks would be serious cause for concern for Australian policymakers, but the combination of them, emerging nearly simultaneously, suggests that we’re on the cusp of an unprecedented and rapidly advancing regional crisis.’
One of the areas likely to be worst hit by accelerating climate change will be maritime Southeast Asia (MSEA), directly to Australia’s north, and Glasser says the emerging regional impacts could overstretch the nation’s operational capacities to act, such as by creating demands on the ADF to simultaneously support disaster relief at home while responding to fast-growing regional security challenges.
Glasser says the MSEA region is exceptionally affected by the hazards that climate change is amplifying. ‘Those hazards will not only exacerbate the traditional regional security threats that currently dominate military and foreign policy planning in Canberra, such as the rise of China, terrorism and separatist movements, but also lead to new threats and the prospect of multiple, simultaneous crises, including food insecurity, population displacement and humanitarian disasters that will greatly test our national capacities, commitments and resilience. So these hazards have serious implications for regional economic development, political stability and security.’
He says there’s a growing realisation in Australia and in its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners, the United States, Japan and India, that climate change will have an increasingly serious impact on regional security.
‘The posture, training and capabilities of the ADF will need to change so that it can be part of Australia’s response to more frequent, higher impact regional natural disasters. Its capability set will also need to evolve to equip it to operate at greater scale and in places affected by large natural disasters,’ he says.
MSEA faces a dangerous constellation of simultaneous climate hazards, says Glasser. The sea level there is rising four times faster than the global average, driven by climate change and other factors. It has the world’s highest average sea-level rise per kilometre of coastline and the largest coastal population affected by it.
Climate tipping points are thresholds that, once exceeded, trigger cascading impacts, such as the sudden release of massive amounts of methane gas from thawing arctic permafrost, which would greatly accelerate warming.
Australia must ensure it has the capacity to lead regional responses to the many natural disasters emerging from a warming climate, Glasser says.
‘We can’t wait for the severity of the situation on our northern doorstep to become obvious before we act, as the pace of climate change impacts is rapidly accelerating and many of our responses to those threats require long lead times to identify, plan and implement, particularly as they will require multilateral as well as national responses.’
The Bureau of Meteorology has begun supporting national security agencies to identify the potential impacts of adverse weather and climate on food security, refugee migration and conflict.
Glasser says this must become part of a much wider, whole-of-government process involving Defence, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Trade, CSIRO, Health, Agriculture, and other departments and agencies.
US President Joe Biden’s whole-of-government approach to climate change demonstrates what can be done when the issue is put at the centre of national security planning, Glasser says.
Australia should identify priority investments to build the capability within Defence, Foreign Affairs, the intelligence agencies, Home Affairs and other departments to recognise emerging climate impacts and establish an ongoing process to re-evaluate the evolving strategic equation in the light of regional developments and as our capacities and understanding improve.
With that greater knowledge, we’ll also be in a better position to identify opportunities, such as aid interventions, to reduce the risk at critical points but also to make investments that build our capacity for regional stabilisation and humanitarian response missions.
‘It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Australian aid program will need to scale up its efforts to strengthen regional resilience to climate change, particularly in MSEA. Recent compelling analysis suggests that helping less developed countries to adapt to climate change can reduce the likelihood of conflict and forced migration,’ says Glasser.
MSEA is also a hotspot for cyclones, which strike the Philippines more often than any other country. The warming climate is making these cyclones more powerful and, together with sea-level rise, is rapidly amplifying storm surges and flooding.
‘In only a matter of decades, what has historically been a 1-in-100-year extreme flood will become an annual event across much of the region,’ Glasser says.
Regional temperatures may rise by 1.5°C within a decade, driving extreme weather which will have major impacts on food security, the availability of water, and disease. The region will also experience more frequent swings from extreme heat and drought to severe floods.
Crop yields will be reduced by rising temperatures, changes in rainfall, the expansion of the reach of crop pests and shifts in predators that keep crop pests in check. The number and duration of heatwaves are already increasing, with hundreds of millions of people already exposed to extreme heat, including in the agriculture sector. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are among the most at risk of the heat-related loss of labour capacity.
Scientists have determined that by 2040, at 2°C of warming, Southeast Asia’s per capita crop production may decline by a third. At the same time, it will become increasingly difficult for nations to import food to feed their populations.
Fish stocks are declining as they move away from warming waters and as the coral reefs that provide their breeding areas collapse.
Glasser says regional nations have made enormous economic progress in recent decades, with the Indonesian economy projected to become the world’s fourth largest by 2050. ‘But there remain significant vulnerabilities that will become sources of instability as the climate continues to warm, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines, where about a quarter of the countries’ populations live on less than US$3.20 per day.’