SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA (smh.com.au) - When President Donald Trump became the commander-in-chief of the US Armed Forces, he accepted the responsibility to protect my country against enemies, foreign and domestic. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shares the same responsibility to protect Australians.
Do these leaders understand that a key component of national security and global stability is climate change and the instability it is already causing around the world? The intersection of these two issues is already striking the world in unexpected ways, as climate change interacts with other pre-existing problems to become an accelerant to instability. The consequences include overwhelming humanitarian crises, forced migrations like those we are witnessing around the Mediterranean, and a breakdown in the human systems that make our societies work.
Indeed, Trump's Defence Secretary, Marine Corps General Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis, said recently: "Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the combatant commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning."
Take Syria. From 2006 to 2010, 60 per cent of Syria had its worst long-term drought and crop failures since civilisation began. About 800,000 people in rural areas had lost their livelihood by 2009. Two to three million people were driven into extreme poverty, and 1.5 million migrated to Syrian cities, which had already received a similar number of Iraqi war refugees.
The cities grew rapidly, as did food and housing prices. The resulting social breakdown, state failure and the rise of Islamic State was a reaction to a regime unable to adequately respond, while the global and regional climatic changes were major underlying causes making a bad problem much worse. Had we factored long-term drought and crop failure into strategic planning for the region in 2011, we might have made earlier decisions about measures needed to avert the current political and refugee crisis.
Extreme weather and climate change also played their part in the Arab Spring. Per capita, the world's top-nine wheat importers are in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2010, a heatwave and wildfires in Ukraine and Russia, and a "once-in-a-century" winter drought in China, resulted in wheat shortages and a global wheat price spike, with bread prices rocketing across the Middle East. Food riots resulted in countries such as Egypt, where basic food costs are one-third of the household budget, and became a trigger for the Arab Spring.
The issue of accelerating climate change should be considered as part of the Australia's current debate over energy security. As the world's driest continent and an important force in Asian security, Australia could be a leader on sustainable growth approaches, to address not only energy and climate security but also critical issues facing the country, such as declining agricultural productivity and water availability.
The national-security dimension of climate change is the subject of intense focus by the American military and security community, where I have worked on the issue for more than two decades. I understand the same is happening occurring in Australia.
The internal cohesion of many nations is already under great stress, including in the United States, as a result of both a dramatic rise in migration, and changes in weather patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world from low-lying Pacific Islands to the US, South Asia and China has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities.
Throughout Asia, climate change will increase regional instability. A one-metre sea-level rise would flood 20 per cent of the area of Bangladesh and displace 30 million people. India has surrounded Bangladesh with a double-security "climate refugee" fence patrolled by 80,000 troops, in anticipation of a potential migration crisis. The Mekong Delta is very vulnerable to inundation, and Pakistan faces a growing water crisis. More than one billion people rely on snow-melt water from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, which will decrease.
The economic and social implications will be profound, with a major effect on Australia's export-dominated economy. As the US National Intelligence Council said in a recent report, the effects of climate change are already under way and are "likely to pose wide-ranging national security challenges for the United States and other countries over the next 20 years".
Now is the time to lower Australia's national security risks by taking a leadership role in coordinated, wide-scale and well-executed actions to limit heat-trapping gases, and in preparing for the projected effects of climate change. This response should include multifaceted cooperation with other nations, as well as between Australian institutions, to build resilience.
To forestall the worst outcomes, we must recognise climate change as a threat multiplier to human society that demands a whole-of-society approach, that will enable Australia to be on the leading edge of innovation and competitiveness in the advanced energy economy that is rapidly evolving in China and other Asian economies.
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Updated 84 days ago Article ID# 4109951