Defence White Paper: Climate Change Threatens Regional Security


Malcolm Turnbull’s Defence White Paper has done what Abbott’s energy equivalent failed to do, acknowledging climate change as a fundamental and overarching influence on Australia’s long-term future and the stability of the region.

There is a growing awareness among international security experts, already embedded in the long-term plans of other nations, that climate change has huge potential to force geopolitical instability, shape conflicts, and require humanitarian deployments.

As New Matilda has previously reported, the toxicity of Canberra’s debate on climate change had contributed to Australia’s tardiness in incorporating it into strategic plans.

Indeed an issues paper released in 2014 by then Defence Minister David Johnston, when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister, didn’t mention climate change at all.

But then, hardly either did the Abbott-era Energy White Paper, said to be ‘technology neutral’, which mentioned climate change only twice to reference the Coalition’s Direct Action policy.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The full Defence White paper released today goes a little further. “Climate change will be a major challenge for countries in Australia’s immediate region,” the paper concedes.

“Within the South Pacific, variable economic growth, crime and social, governance and climate change challenges will all contribute to uneven progress and may lead to instability in some countries,” it states.

“Climate change will see higher temperatures, increased sea-level rise and will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These effects will exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation, and will contribute to food shortages and undermine economic development.”

The White Paper also acknowledges the threat that climate change poses to the ‘defence estate’ – Australia’s Navy bases will be impacted by rising seas and “more extreme weather events more frequently putting facilities at risk of damage”.

Ultimately, beyond 2025, climate change will contribute to a need to develop “new bases, wharves, airfields and training and weapons testing ranges”.

That’s pretty much the sum-total of the paper’s focus on climate change, though. Despite anticipating climate change will be an important contributor to state fragility – one of six key drivers that the paper says will shape Defence thinking out to 2035 – it’s mentioned less than 10 times, and only in a perfunctory sense.

(IMAGE: Rob Faulkner, Flickr).
(IMAGE: Rob Faulkner, Flickr).

As New Matilda reported in June last year, other countries have been making more serious and methodical attempts to integrate climate change into their long-term strategic thinking.

A former senior advisor to the UK government, Rear Admiral Neill Morisetti said at the time that other countries are now “instinctively saying ‘we must factor in the impact of a changing climate along with all the other points’”.

He said the “political context presents a challenge in Australia”.

Defence was being hampered, and political influences dissuading proper acknowledgement of climate change’s pervasive presence as a ‘multiplyer’ of other threats to geopolitical stability, a report from the Centre for Policy Development suggested.

Today’s White Paper shows the first signs that those roadblocks to an un-politicised approach to strategic planning may be coming down under Turnbull’s leadership.

Clearly, though, there’s still plenty of work to be done to put flesh on the bare bones that are outlined in the Defence White Paper.

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.