The water is rising and there's no Defence

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Sydney Harbour (Image by Mtoddy / Wikimedia Commons)

Our Defence Department is not equipped to deal with national security issues from abroad or domestic civil unrest due to climate change-related events, as temperatures rise and the population competes for scarce resources, writes Kellie Tranter.

IN ITS FINAL report released in May 2018, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee recommended the Department of Defence consider releasing an unclassified version of the work it had undertaken to identify climate risks to its estate. That hasn’t been done.

A 2013 report titled, 'Project AZ5220: Adaptation and planning strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change induced sea level rise, flooding and erosion at selected Defence sites’, was released under freedom of information laws. The report identified as "high" or "very high" risk in 2040 and 2070, 13 Defence sites, as well as the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

The report appears to form part of a two-stage study completed by Defence. The 2011 Study Stage 1, involved a high-level screening of the likely risks associated with coastal and riverine flooding, and the potential for coastal erosion in 2040, 2070 and 2100. It also recommended that more detailed examinations be carried out. Of 38 significant Defence bases, 13 sites were then identified as being at risk.

Stage Two involved more detailed assessments of coastal and riverine flooding, and the potential for coastal erosion and was completed in 2013.

The second study confirmed that it

‘... should not be assumed that the other 24 sites included in the initial assessment are not at risk from the impacts of terrestrial flooding, coastal erosion or other impacts of climate change.’

That precaution was sensible given that the findings of Stage Two were based on the now outdated 2007 findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In 2014, the United Nations report, ‘Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy Makers’, was released.

Its co-author, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Independent University in Bangladesh, Saleemul Huq, warned that

“Things are worse than we had predicted in 2007, when the group of scientists last issued this type of report. We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

An executive report was prepared for Defence by AECOM in June 2018. The AECOM report, ‘Assessment of the Impact of Climate Change Induced Sea Level Rise, Flooding & Erosion at Selected Defence Training Areas and Ranges’, was also released under freedom of information laws. It is a summary of the findings of Stage Two and the redactions suggest that things are far worse than the conclusions reached in the Stage Two study in 2013.

In fact, it is worth noting that the 2013 report used a projection of 1.43 metres maximum sea-level rise by 2100, which, by all reports, is now entirely inadequate given that the Pentagon reportedly uses projections of 2 to 2.5 metres. A recent scientific paper‘Ice sheet contributions to future sea-level rise from structured expert judgment’ , suggests that two metres sea-level rise by 2100 is feasible.

In 2018, the Senate Committee concluded that climate change is

'... a current and existential national security risk [that] threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development'.

Documents released also confirm that late in 2018, the Chief of Defence, Angus Campbell, met with David Spratt and Ian Dunlop. They are authors of the report ‘What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk’, and just this week made headlines with their report, which suggests that there is a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end beginning in 2050. Defence officials met with Spratt and Dunlop with the objective of better understanding the security implications resulting from the effects of climate change.

The work of Spratt and Dunlop is focused on the question of whether the Australian Government, its departments and agencies have a realistic grip on the existential risk of climate change, including from a global national security perspective. Their conclusion, as outlined in their published material, is that, in general, they do not. 

There are many disturbing aspects about the findings of the Stage Two report — itself based on the findings of the IPCC in 2007 and the costs of adaptation were mounting even then.

These include the impacts from and on:

  • marine flooding;
  • estuarine flooding;
  • coastal erosion significant to buildings;
  • site access and internal roads; 
  • pier and marine infrastructure; 
  • runways and aviation infrastructure; 
  • utilities; 
  • environmental assets; and
  • and contamination of local areas.

Athough the Department of Defence has at least considered what might happen to its infrastructure, we are left with an uneasy feeling that it has not yet prepared, nor is it equipped, to deal with or respond to the national security issues we face from abroad as a result of multiple climate change-related events. Nor is it clear how Defence would manage the domestic civil unrest and conflicts that inevitably occur as temperatures rise and the domestic population finds itself competing for scarce resources.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter.

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