Climate security risks and Australia’s failure

03 May 2024 – Too hot to handle: The scorching reality of Australia’s climate–security failure” is a report published by the Australian Security Leaders Group (ASLCG). This article is an extract from the report.

One line of evidence for the Australian Government’s seriousness about climate–security risks is government activity, but there is little to see. The government’s most valuable initiative, the Office of National Intelligence risk assessment, has been buried. There have been no significant or specific announcements on climate-related security issues since the report was finished, and the government has not responded to a number of requests made by ASLCG for the report’s release of any of its key findings.

Climate was mentioned only in passing in the Defence Security Review (DSR) and the National Defence Strategy did no better.

Ministers visiting the Pacific say that Australia recognises climate is a big issue for Pacific nations and takes that seriously, whilst simultaneously overseeing a major expansion of the gas industry. The Pacific pitch is designed to meld small Pacific states into the bigger anti-China strategic alliance led by the United States, and to disrupt Chinese influence in the region. But climate, not China, is the greatest risk to our future.

A government that verbally recognises the “existential” nature of the climate–security threat would also accept the responsibility to educate Australian people on this threat and take actions necessary to address it.

When a government identifies a large threat to Australian security, their usual mode is to build the case to act by going out of their way to talk about it. For example, both the government and the opposition have given inordinate attention to talking up the “China threat”; AUKUS is in practical terms about the “China threat”, and “Indo-Pacific” a codeword for “contest with China”. Looking back, there was an all-out effort by the Howard government to convince Australians that Iraq’s (mythical) weapons of mass destruction justified going to war. And before that the much-vaunted “domino theory” was used to justify Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.

But the climate threat? Not a priority. An analysis of the number of discrete media events (speeches, media transcripts, media releases and statements) by Defence Minister Marles in which he has referenced China (and related codewords), compared to climate, is revealing.

To early March 2024, Marles had referenced the Indo-Pacific on 158 occasions, China 221, America 129 and AUKUS 202. By way of comparison, climate change appears 49 times, the word existential 12 times, and sea-level rise — the greatest climate concern of the Pacific — on just two occasions.

The DSR, co-chaired by a former Labor foreign minister, included a section on climate change of just 252 words, most related to minimising any increased role for the Defence Force in disaster relief. There were no recommendations bar those relating to getting Defence out of emergency responses and using more renewable energy. On the big climate-security picture — described by Chatham House as cascading climate impacts that will drive political instability and fuel regional and international conflict — there was not a single recommendation.

Climate as a primary security issue? Not in this “strategic” review.

The government’s climate communications strategy is clear. In the international arena, make China the big story and climate a subsidiary one. Domestically, it is even more stark. The government is making the climate story about renewable energy and jobs, along with the “strategic” importance of gas expansion, whilst talking about the actual and projected climate impacts as little as possible.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has referred to renewable energy on 373 occasions (up to 10 March 2024), with big numbers for battery (133), storage (165), hydrogen (143), coal (172), pumped hydro (32) and renewable energy superpower (105).

The climate emergency rated 32 mentions and extreme weather or heat 15. But drill down to the specific impacts of climate change and the cupboard is bare. Sea levels get nine mentions, Antarctica — one of the fastest warming places on Earth and where Australia claims a large territory — rated four mentions, and the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), now in a death spiral, just one. Words relating to key climate systems — tipping points, permafrost, the slowing Atlantic circulation, the Amazon and extinction — score zero mentions.

In February and March 2024, the GBR experienced the most severe bleaching and coral death on record due to unprecedented hot ocean temperatures. Bleaching after bleaching, the World-Heritage-listed reef is dying. And what did the responsible minister, Tanya Plibersek, say about these global news-worthy events? Not a word. Her ministerial website records just three mentions of the reef over those two months — all in the first half of February — and they related to the appointment of a “New Chair for Reef 2050 Independent Expert Panel”, the delivery of a progress report on the Reef to UNESCO, and Great Barrier Reef Wetlands Strategy; all of which are part of ongoing political contortions to avoid the reef being placed on the UNESCO “endangered” list, when in reality it is dying.

There is good evidence that we need to be honest and forthright about the climate problem. Counterposing “fear” and “hope” narratives is a false dichotomy, because both are needed. Public health promotion campaigns such as “quit smoking” show that the messages that work best combine a personally relevant description of the threat (fear), and a clear exposition of the solution with a clear path of achievable actions to address it (hope).

Research also shows that increased commitment to taking action can be achieved by just reading a climate message that forthrightly describes the seriousness of our situation. Strong fear messages have been found to be more effective than weak fear messages; when fear is combined with hope, this can create an emotional drive that motivates a change of habit. And climate anxiety is an important driver for climate action.

And the lesson? You can’t solve a problem — in this case the biggest threat humanity has ever faced — without talking about it honestly and leading the conversation. The Australian government is certainly not doing that.

First published in Pearls and Irritations. 

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