Climate change will have important ramifications for security and the global balance of power.
Resource scarcity, an increase in the frequency of natural disasters, an intensification of human migration and a growing disparity between per capita emissions for developed and developing countries are all direct or indirect potential sources of conflict. Varying by region, ecological, demographic or socio-economic factors will determine where climate change will present major challenges in the future.
In 2006, Alan Dupont and Graeme Pearman, writing for the Lowy Institute for International Policy, discussed the impact of climate change on the security environment:
The reality is that 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.
...Where climate change coincides with other transnational challenges to security, such as terrorism or pandemic diseases, or adds to pre-existing ethnic and social tensions, then the impact will be magnified. However, state collapse and destabilising internal conflicts is 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.
Source: A Dupont and G Pearman, Heating up the planet: Climate change and security, Lowy Institute Paper 12, Double Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2006, p. vii.
More recently, the US Department of Defence in its February 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review stated that climate change ‘will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.’ The Department added further:
While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas.
Source: US Department of Defence, Quadrennial Defence Review Report, Department of Defence, Washington, DC, February 2010, p. 85.
Similarly, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, in its January 2010 edition of Global Strategic Trends, wrote:
Climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignites, rather than directly causing it.
In April 2007 the United Nations Security Council held a debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security. During the debate, some developing countries argued that the Security Council was not the proper forum to discuss climate change, believing it to be a socio-economic development issue rather than a security matter. Other states, such as the representative for the Pacific Islands Forum, Papua New Guinea, stated that the impact of climate change on small islands was no less threatening than guns and bombs were to large nations.
As can be seen from these examples, key defence organisations and commentators are now examining the possible security ramifications of climate change.
Implications for Australia
In Australia, a number of security agencies and think tanks have studied the possible impacts of climate change on Australia’s security.
For example, during a Senate Estimates hearing in May 2007—see page 160 of Official Committee Hansard, Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, Estimates, 22 May 2007—the Office of National Assessments (ONA) told the committee that it had produced five reports on the strategic impacts of climate change over the previous six months. ONA resisted calls to make these reports public.
Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty referred to a link between climate change and national security on a number of occasions. In a March 2009 speech, Keelty said:
Looming on the law enforcement horizon, non-traditional security issues such as global warming, pandemics and food security could also emerge as potential threats in years to come. While this is an area still the subject of much debate, current thinking is that climate change could complicate international and national security arenas in five key ways, namely:
- Increased water, food and energy scarcities;
- Increased unregulated population movements;
- More severe natural disasters;
- Greater health consequences including from an increased risk of pandemics; and
- The combination of these factors to weaken some states.
Earlier, in September 2007, Keelty labelled climate change ‘the security issue of the 21st century’.
Anthony Bergin and Jacob Townsend, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), released a paper in July 2007 that analysed the implications of climate change for the Australian Defence Force. Bergin and Townsend argued that the Department of Defence should be thinking about the long term impacts of climate change for defence policy.
Finally, as part of the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, a paper was commissioned to examine the security risks for Australia associated with climate change (cited below in ‘further reading’). On the issue of the relationship between climate change and security for Australia, the final report of the Garnaut Review commented:
Australia’s immediate neighbours are vulnerable developing countries with limited capacity to adapt to climate change.
Climate change outcomes such as displacement of human settlements by sea-level rise, reduced food production, water scarcity and increased disease, while immensely important in themselves, also have the potential to destabilise domestic and international political systems in parts of Asia and the south-west Pacific...
The problems of its neighbours can quickly become Australia’s, as recent history attests. Over the past decade, Australia has intervened at large cost in Bougainville, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste in response to political and humanitarian crises. Responding to the regional impacts of climate change will require cooperative regional solutions and Australian participation.
CNA Corporation, National security and the threat of climate change, CNA Corporation, 2007.
A Dupont et al., Climate change and security: managing the risk, paper commissioned by the Garnaut Climate Change Review, June 2008.
K Campbell et al., The age of consequences—the foreign policy and national security implications of global climate change, Center for a New American Security, November 2007.
J Drexhage et al., Climate change and foreign policy—an exploration of options for greater integration, International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, 2007.
C Pumphrey (ed.), Global climate change—national security implications, Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle USA, 2008.
Royal United Services Institute website, Climate change and security
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