Former Chief of the Australian Defence Force Chris Barrie recently argued that 'Australia's defence force is lagging significantly behind its US and UK counterparts in preparing to deal with the challenges created by a changing climate.'
Barrie says 'Australia's regional leadership and presence — important matters for the ADF — have been overtaken by the highly proactive New Zealand Defence Force and the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, who have been ordered directly by the American government to establish clear leadership in the region on climate change matters.'
Barrie's concern is well placed. The new Defence White Paper 2016 fails to seriously engage with the many ways that climate change is transforming geopolitics in our region. There are some anodyne statements on climate (noting the ADF's role in responding to natural disasters, for example, or how sea level rise will affect coastal RAN bases). But you get no real sense of the way environmental factors interact with social, economic and security challenges.
Around the world, there's a growing literature on the connection between global warming and security. Of course climate change is not the sole determinant of regional instability. But it can be a multiplying factor where other drivers of conflict are present, such as displacement, food and water insecurity and inequality.
The White Paper also underplays the ways that climate will significantly transform ADF practice and priorities. There's no analysis, for example, of climate displacement in the Asia Pacific and how that might impact Operation Resolute. When have you heard an Australian politician talk about drought and access to water in northern Syria as drivers of conflict in areas dominated by ISIS?
The same week the Turnbull Government launched its White Paper, ADF medics and MHR-90 helicopters are in Fiji. They're assisting the Bainimarama Government and NGOs to extend services to Fiji's outer islands after Cyclone Winston, the latest category 5 disaster in our neighbourhood.
In the aftermath of Cyclone Pam, another category 5 storm which hammered Vanuatu in March 2015, I wrote:
The Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre in Fiji has already chosen the names for the next cyclones that will develop in the region. Pam will be followed in coming months and years by Reuben, Solo, Tuni, Ula, Victor and Winston – then, not too far in the future, we'll start the alphabet again.
Less than a year after Pam, we're already up to Winston!
There's only one indication in the White Paper that high-intensity weather events are the new norm for the islands region. It notes that: 'Our strategic weight, proximity and resources place high expectations on us to respond to instability or natural disasters, and climate change means we will be called on to do so more often.'
Winston was the strongest cyclone ever recorded to make landfall in Fiji, generating gusts of up to 325kph, with average winds of 230kph. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and research by a range of scientific agencies, have projected that cyclone activity will increase in severity and intensity in the coming years. If the ADF deploys more often for more intensive humanitarian operations in the islands, its budget, equipment and personnel will be further stressed and diverted from other strategic priorities.
With the Government announcing that defence spending will increase by $29.9 billion over the next decade, it's worth remembering the Abbott Government announced a $11.3 billion reduction in official development assistance (ODA) over forward estimates. In 2015-16, the ODA budget was slashed by a billion dollars (an unprecedented 20% cut in one year). With Australia's overseas aid at its lowest level in decades, there's little prospect of good news on aid for our Pacific neighbours from the Turnbull Government's May budget.
Before Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015, I traveled to Futuna, a small island in the south-east of the country, to report on an innovative Australian-funded project. Local and international NGOs were working to assist villagers on outer islands to prepare for natural disasters. This work, valued at $2 million, was both inspiring and cost-effective, but Australia did not extend the project funding for a second phase. A month after the project wrapped up and local staff were re-deployed in early 2015, Cyclone Pam struck.
It's bizarre that we expect the ADF to face an increasing tempo of humanitarian operations in the Pacific when we cannot sustain our regional commitments in other sectors.
Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.