By Lily Feldman
The Indo-Pacific is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change impacts. For its part, Australia is already experiencing record-breaking bushfires and droughts, among other environmental security risks. The country also must deal with the potential of further damage to its import and export markets due to the climate crisis. Despite these threats, Australian government action to tackle climate security risks has lagged. There is still a serious need for a more comprehensive government-backed environmental risk mitigation and response system, and the Australian Security Leadership Climate Group (ASLCG) aims to accelerate this process.
The deadly Black Summer bushfires in 2019 exposed Australia’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Australia did not have the necessary resources available to combat and reduce the fires, so it had to seek international assistance. The Australian Defence Force also mobilized the most servicemen for domestic relief in its history, utilizing roughly 8,000 personnel. Highly ranked ex-service members of the Australian Defence Force experienced, first-hand, the impacts climate change had on communities, ecosystems, and overall security of their country. ASLCG executive member, and long-time Center for Climate and Security Senior Fellow Army Major Michael Thomas (Retd) expressed his frustration with Australia’s lack of response to the fires, stating:
“This is no longer something that happens in a third-world country somewhere or in the future. This is happening here on our doorstep. It impacts everyday Australians.”
Major Thomas has joined other former Australian army personnel, including former Chief of the Defence Force Chris Barrie AC (retd) and former Defence Department Director of Preparedness and Mobilisation Cheryl Durrant in forming the ASLCG to demand a new and refocused approach by the Australian government to address significant climate security risks.
The ASLCG was launched in April 2021 as a direct response to growing climate change concerns amongst Australians and the country’s security forces, and was inspired by the work of the U.S.-based Center for Climate and Security, including its Climate and Security Advisory Group and International Military Council on Climate and Security. The mission of ASLCG is to advocate, research, and recommend policy changes, and work with government officials to ensure the implementation of actionable plans for ongoing and future climate security threats in Australia. One of the ASLCG’s primary objectives is to assist the Australian government’s development of a “whole-of-nation” national assessment of climate-security risks. The group urges that the government’s approach include diverse perspectives from stakeholders, open and transparent communication about plans, and comprehensive identification of climate security issues.
Executive Member of the ASLCG and former Australian Defence Force service member Cheryl Durrant wants Australia to have a more strategic approach to mitigating the issues of climate change: “This critical review is a key step to fill the major strategic gap that currently exists in Australia. It is only through understanding the risks posed by climate change that we can then act to mitigate these clear and present dangers.”
The Australian government has not updated its national security risk assessment since 2013. The ASLCG is pushing the government towards more proactive measures such as working with climate scientists to help understand the future implications of climate security in Australia. Other countries, like the United States under the Biden Administration, are stepping up their responsibilities as a global leader and major strategic defense ally—emphasizing the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change for present and future generations. Australia will continue to fall behind other countries’ in climate-related response efforts if climate security action continues to be sidelined by the Australian government. The country currently lacks coherent strategies for addressing climate change in industries such as energy, the economy, health, and agriculture.
ASLCG can help the Australian government regain focus on addressing the key national security issues of today. With the expertise of military personnel, holistic government engagement, and updated scientific research, Australia should be better prepared for current and future climate security risks. If not, Australian communities and ecosystems will continue to suffer.
Lily Feldman is an intern with the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks