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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Graham Readfearn: Australia's Department of Defence concerned about climate change threat multipliers

Climate change will 'exacerbate existing problems': Defence

by Graham Readfearn, ABC Australia, Environment, September 11, 2013
Navy helicopter lands on HMAS Sydney
As first responders and humanitarian assistance providers, the armed forces will be busy in a climate changed future. Credit: Australian Defence Image Library
Extreme weather and rising sea levels caused by climate change will significantly increase the need for an effective defence force. It's why the military are taking notice of the scientists.

WHEN AUSTRALIAN professors Colin Butler, Tony McMichael and Will Steffen stood up to talk climate change at a series of briefings in Canberra earlier this year there was something very different about the audience.

This wasn't a forum organised by an environment group where the seats are taken up by the usual cohort of the climate concerned.

Instead, this audience was full of hardheaded military types and members of the defence community - people worried more about conflict and geopolitics than wind turbines and carbon footprints. This invitation to speak on climate change had come from Australia's Department of Defence.

"They wanted to get a handle on the idea of tipping elements in the climate system that could cause rapid change that would be very difficult for human societies to deal with," says Professor Steffen, an Australian Climate Commissioner and executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

Butler, Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Canberra, displayed maps of places where climate change might act as a "threat multiplier" - food and water shortages in eastern parts of Asia and forced migration across Africa.

"The maintenance of peace and preventing war depends on more than just military personnel and hardware," says Professor Butler. "It also depends on what I call the 'determinants of peace' - that is, having enough basic resources of food, shelter and energy."

It's a far cry from 2009, when a Defence White Paper concluded that climate change would not be a serious consideration for the Defence Forces until at least 2030.

Australia's current National Security Strategy lists climate change as a broad global challenge "with national security implications" alongside the more obvious threats of corruption and the resurgence of violent political groups.

Last month in the journal Science, researchers reported the results of an analysis of "45 different conflict data sets" and found "strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict."

When rainfall and temperatures started to shift, the study found a systematic increase in "the risk of many types of conflict."

One of the study's authors, the University of California's Marshall Burke, told the ABC that if societies in the future responded to these changes in the same way as previous ones, then, for example, "We could see a 50 per cent or greater increase in civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of climate change by about 2050."

Does this mean war?

Air Vice-Marshal Neil Hart is head of the Joint Capability Coordination Division at the Department of Defence. His responsibilities include examining the potential impacts of global changes on the preparedness of the Australian Defence Force.

He says that changes in the global climate system have the potential to "exacerbate existing problems" through flooding of low-lying regions, more frequent and severe natural disasters, and shifting rainfall. This could lead to loss of food production in some areas and "climate-driven large-scale human migration."

"Taken together, these factors point to the potential for an increased demand for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and stabilisation operations over coming decades," he says.

The Australian Government's latest Defence White Paper, published in May, found that global energy, food and water resources were under pressure from population growth, rising affluence and climate change.

"As a frequent first responder to national and international emergencies, Defence needs to be prepared for some of the consequences of global climate system changes, such as potentially increased demands for the Australian Defence Force to undertake humanitarian and disaster relief responses both domestically and across the region."
As a threat multiplier, it has the potential to generate and exacerbate destabilising conditions that could reshape the regional security environment.
  The commander of the US Navy in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, agrees climate change is a real threat to peace. Earlier this year he said climate change was the greatest long-term security threat for his region.

Rising sea levels could displace communities, he said, and the impacts from climate change could "cripple the security environment."

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti is the UK's special representative on climate change. Appointed by the Foreign Office, he says climate change will likely "accelerate global instability" and that it challenges "our ability to deliver our core mission of providing national security."

Security council

Professor Tony McMichael, an expert on the impacts of climate change on human health at Australian National University, believes the defence department "can see quite clearly that the world around us is changing pretty rapidly and that has considerable implications for the defence forces on several fronts - both beyond our borders and within."

He says climate change impacts are already causing health issues in the Asia Pacific region, in particular from sea levels rising and damaging land used for growing food.

"So there are concerns that food supplies, agricultural land and even habitable land is now under threat. That represents a number of immediate threats to nutrition, health and safety that in the longer term is likely to disrupt communities."

In September, Australia will take its turn as president of the United Nations Security Council, where there have been long-running calls for more formal recognition of the climate threat.

One of Australia's leading security think tanks, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), produced a detailed report on climate change and Australia's defence force in March.

The report suggested that climate change had "generated little interest in either the Australian Defence Force (ADF) or the Australian Defence Department" compared with the UK and the United States.

"Climate change is transforming the conventional roles of security forces," the report said. "As a threat multiplier, it has the potential to generate and exacerbate destabilising conditions that could reshape the regional security environment."

But the report also pointed out the ADF had been called on to help communities after the 2009 Victorian bushfires, the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi in 2011. These events, the report said, had resulted in some of the largest defence deployments ever in Australia.

As the issue of refugees continues to dominate the political landscape, Professor McMichael says the current flows of people "really are just a taste of what's to come as living conditions deteriorate in many parts of the world."

The ASPI report highlighted how there were 250 million people living in the river deltas of Asia. In particular, the report said the Mekong and Ganges-Brahmaputra deltas were regarded as being at extreme risk from sea level rise.

"Many defence forces around the world are obviously seeing the strategic implications of a rapidly destabilising climate and what that might mean," adds Professor Steffen. "It's simply in their interest to be prepared."

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