Climate changeEnvironment

‘Dystopian future’: Climate change to force review of military’s role

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Climate change poses “a major security challenge for Australia” that experts warn has the potential to rapidly stretch the capability of the military, as demonstrated by the current bushfire emergency.

Michael Thomas, a retired army major, said “rising emissions will result in a more unstable and insecure world that will have far-reaching human, national and international security consequences”, in an article published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Tuesday.

No longer over the horizon: climate change is already creating challenges for Australia's military, including the current bushfire season.

No longer over the horizon: climate change is already creating challenges for Australia’s military, including the current bushfire season.Credit:ADF/AP

“The bushfire crisis that’s unfolding across Australia provides some insight into what that dystopian world will look like,” he said.

Major Thomas, who published a 2017 book on the security risks of climate change, said the fires that caused at least 27 deaths and burnt millions of hectares revealed the limits of Australia’s forces to cope with traditional threats abroad and concurrent new ones at home.

“Climate change is talked about as a ‘threat multiplier’ but it’s actually a ‘burden multiplier'”, he told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

The Morrison government copped criticism for waiting until earlier this month to deploy 3000 dedicated reserve troops to assist with the bushfire relief despite major fires burning in some states since September.

It also dispatched the navy to assist in the evacuation of people stranded in Victoria’s East Gippsland.

Major Thomas said “the bushfire crisis may be the moment that opens genuine but critically honest policy debate on climate change in Australia”.

ADF Reservists preparing at Holsworthy Army Barracks in south-west Sydney earlier this month for deployment to respond to the unprecedented bushfires across the country.

ADF Reservists preparing at Holsworthy Army Barracks in south-west Sydney earlier this month for deployment to respond to the unprecedented bushfires across the country.Credit:James Alcock

Rising sea levels and more intense storms not only threaten the stability of domestic and foreign communities, they also undermine the capability of Australia’s own military to respond.

The type, location and frequencies of challenges for armed forces everywhere were already changing, with flow-on consequences for the equipment, training and structures they need, Major Thomas said.

“What was meant to be tomorrow’s security problem has been catapulted into the here and now,” he said.

Major Thomas pointed to Australia’s participation with South Pacific partners in 2018 in the Boe Declaration on Regional Security as a recognition by the government that defence forces have “a unique and important role” to play in a warming world.

However, while countries such as New Zealand had followed up with a defense assessment later that year and an implementation plan last month, the Australian government had made little public about the military’s readiness to respond to climate change.

Major Thomas, who served in the military for 20 years, said the lack of a bipartisan political consensus in Australia – unlike in its partner across the Tasman – meant Australia’s defense forces were largely absent from the public debate.

“The [ADF’s] voice has been lost in the Australian debate,” he said.

The government has committed some $70 billion for new submarines and joint strike fighters. In light of the emerging threats, Major Thomas said it should reconsider buying more landing craft – such as those used at Mallacoota in Victoria – or building a reserve fire-fighting or other disaster-relief capacity.

The Herald and The Age approached the Defence Department and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for comment.

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