climate change military
A 1998 ADF relief effort in West Papua (Image: AAP/Gary Ramage)

Back in January, the US Department of Defense released a congressionally-mandated report on how climate change increasingly affects the military’s ability to respond to national emergencies.

The report details everything from the vulnerabilities of military bases to new strategic landscapes posed by melting arctic ice to a projected need for increased humanitarian aid. It follows evidence of resilience boosting in the Pentagon’s 2014 “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap”, the landmark 2007 report “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”, and several similar public warnings dating back as far as 1990.

But while the US military’s awareness of present and increasing security threats has managed to survive a president who could not care less about the science, has the rest of the world followed suit? And what does a warming world mean for Australia’s unique security situation?

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Targeting climate change 

Australian defence experts have similarly highlighted climate change-related security risks decades before elected officials laughed about coal in parliament. Foreign affairs consultants warned MPs as far back as 1995 that our increased greenhouse gas emissions posed both humanitarian and reputational risks across the Pacific.

Climate change first made it onto a Defence White Paper in 2009, while a 2018 Greens-initiated Senate inquiry led to a fairly-comprehensive identification of local and regional security risks, their impact on human induced migration, and suggestions for a future role of the Australian Defence Force.

Military personnel and climate scientists identified climate change acting as a “threat multiplier” — a term coined during the Pentagon’s 2007 report — for heatwaves, bushfires, droughts, sea levels and storms. Areas impacted included Australian communities, low-lying military bases, and much of the Asia-Pacific region.

The ADF, which sent 400 troops to help with Cyclone Marcus in the Northern Territory last year, noted that it wasn’t actually designed for relief efforts and expressed some exasperation at climate change creating “concurrency pressures” in the form of simultaneous disasters. Australia saw this displayed last year, when longer bushfire seasons strained the US-Australia firefighting cooperation as well as state services.

The possibility of climate change exacerbating actual conflict was also raised. Hypotheticals ranged from submersion and erosion “intensifying” conflict in the South China Sea, to receding glaciers in the Himalayas starving China, Burma, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan of water.

Most of the attention, however, concerned the expected increase in climate change induced-migration, particularly across Asia-Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands (which are already devastated by rising seas and unprecedented storms).

Considering 40 million people were displaced by natural disasters across Asia in 2010-11 alone, the expected influx of refugees is going to require some radical changes.

Policing a crisis

While climate change-induced migration is highlighted in the Pentagon’s final report as a security issue, it is important to remember that challenges stemming from migration are not inherently security risks. This was something highlighted by the IPCC’s call for expanded mobility opportunities.

As the Transnational Institute’s Nick Buxton wrote last year, any military-led response to global warming not only reinforces national divides, but can lead to more costly and militarised disaster relief. Buxton highlights the response to Hurricane Katrina, where US National Guards shot at flood victims.

However, these concerns do little to change the fact that — due to their skill set, massive resources, and a lack of large-scale wars to fight — the ADF is increasingly called on for Asia-Pacific disasters whether we like it or not.

ADF climate change

[Source: Department of Defence via ABC)

An inevitable response

The final report of the 2018 Senate inquiry, while being non-binding and largely ignored by Coalition members, called for the Department of Defence to publish an unclassified climate change strategy, better prepare for more extreme weather, upgrade infrastructure and even set its own emissions reduction targets.

Supporting this is the fact that both US and Australian militaries are surprisingly open to the idea of clean-energy transformation. There is certainly room to grow — the US military is reportedly the single largest user of petroleum and single largest producer of carbon emissions in the world. But the US was, as of 2017, making strides to cut emissions. The ADF, meanwhile, has made a major push towards solar energy generation, and commissioned the world’s largest saltwater-pumped hydro plant for a training facility in South Australia.

As Buxton points out, there are safer and cheaper solutions than troops to an inevitable increase in climate-induced migration. But the ADF is almost guaranteed to have an increased humanitarian — and not to mention defence — role in an increasingly warming world. And as academics and journalists noted during last year’s inquiry, it’s remarkable that a traditionally conservative institution like the military would warn of the existing and future threats of climate change.

The question now is how long it will take the government to listen.

What do you think the military should be doing to prepare for the coming crises of climate change? Let us know your thoughts at

This piece is part of our dedicated climate change series, Slow Burn. Read the rest here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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