Group 5. Security, social instability and conflict

Arguments about the reliability of the scientific data and the seriousness of climate change have dominated the public and policy discourse on climate change in Australia. There has been little attempt to situate the climate change debate within a broader policy framework or to assess the risk to national and international security, in which the probability of an adverse climate event is weighted by the magnitude of its impact.

Protecting and stabilising our climate is a legitimate objective of national security policy, since human survival is dependent on the health of the biosphere and the coupled ocean-atmosphere system.

Climate change of the order and time frames predicted by climate scientists poses fundamental questions of human security, survival and the stability of nation states which necessitate judgments about political and strategic risk as well as economic cost. Climate change will complicate and threaten Australia’s security environment in several ways.

First, weather extremes and greater fluctuations in rainfall and temperatures have the capacity to refashion the region’s productive landscape and aggravate food, water and energy scarcities in a relatively short time span. Sea-level rise is of particular concern because of the density of coastal populations and the potential for the large-scale displacement of people in Asia.

Second, climate change will contribute to destabilising, unregulated population movements in Asia and the Pacific. Most of these flows are likely to be internal, but the ripple effects will be felt beyond the borders of the states most affected, requiring cooperative regional solutions.

Third, more extreme weather patterns will result in greater death and destruction from natural disasters, adding to the burden on poorer countries and stretching the resources and coping ability of even the most developed nations.

Fourth, extreme weather events and climate-related disasters will not only trigger short-term disease spikes but also have more enduring health security consequences, since some infectious diseases will become more widespread as the planet heats up.

Fifth, even if not catastrophic in themselves, the cumulative impact of rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more mega-droughts on agriculture, fresh water and energy could threaten the security of states in Australia’s neighbourhood by weakening their resource base, thereby undermining the legitimacy and response capabilities of their governments and jeopardising the security of their citizens.

Where climate change coincides with other transnational challenges to security, such as terrorism or pandemic diseases, or adds to existing ethnic and social tensions, then the impact will be magnified. However, state collapse and destabilising internal conflicts are a more likely outcome than interstate war. For a handful of small, low-lying Pacific nations, climate change is the ultimate security threat, since rising sea levels will eventually make their countries uninhabitable.

Questions to get you thinking

  • What are the arguments for locating climate change impacts, particularly human and social impacts, within a broader policy framework and how might a whole of government approach to climate change be operationalised?
  • Should climate change be dealt with by a single government department? Or would it be better for all government departments to assess the impact of climate change on their respective portfolios and, if so, how?
  • What methodologies could be used to evaluate the political, social and strategic risk of dangerous climate change?
  • How would you prioritise the health and related social risks to Australia of climate change?

Some experts contend that because all climate change impacts are linked, devising policy responses to only one aspect of the problem can inadvertently and negatively exacerbate other climate change impacts. Do you agree?


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Participants

© 2018 Australian Academy of Science

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