Perilous to Ignore: The Impacts of Climate Change on Australia’s Security

CSPS Fellow Steven Wachter calls attention to the dramatic—and rising—impacts of climate change on Australia’s national security.

In addition to its dramatic impacts on the natural environment, climate change is also increasingly intersecting with national security. As a consequence, failing to adequately address the risks generated by this intersection will increasingly threaten to undermine a country’s national security regardless of its standing in more narrow traditional conceptions of security. Australia is an illustrative example of how the effects of climate change can generate serious national security risks. However, it is also an example of how a government can respond to this challenge by raising awareness of these dangers and introducing policy adaptions and resilience measures to address them. Addressing these climate-driven risks is becoming an integral part of effective national security policy and is set to remain one for the foreseeable future due to the long-term and multifaceted nature of the climate change challenge.

A 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that climate change was causing Australia to experience warmer temperatures, more heatwaves, sea level rise, changes in precipitation, more extreme fire weather days, and higher frequency extreme events such as fires, cyclones, and floods. These are already having serious consequences for Australia’s environment, ecosystems, population, economy, and infrastructure and the IPCC expects them to worsen in the coming years. While these are multifaceted challenges, a critical risk is that they could strain Australia’s ability to respond to them effectively, especially if their shocks compound and cascade in ways that amplify their negative effects. Another serious risk is disruptions to Australia’s critical infrastructure endangering Australia’s population, economy, and the Australian Defense Force (ADF), which are all heavily reliant on it.

Looking at Australia’s broader region, a source of serious climate security risk is regional instability resulting from conflict driven or exacerbated by climate change. The most likely risk is that climate change endangers human security in neighboring states. This can result from a vicious cycle of low climate resiliency leading to political unrest after a disaster and further eroding states’ legitimacy and ability to respond to climate change. The recent Defence Strategic Review identifies climate change as a potential driver of regional risks that may lead to “…increased demands for peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and intrastate and interstate conflict.” This is concerning as many states in Australia’s region exhibit multiple risk factors for climate-related conflict, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Pacific Island States. Climate change may also increase the danger of conflict between states as it generates regional shocks or crises that interact with the ongoing strategic competition in the region between China and Australia’s ally the United States. Finally, there is also the risk of conflict emerging from competition over diminishing climate-impacted resources, such as fisheries.

The most serious overall national security risk Australia faces from climate change is Australian government and ADF capabilities being overstretched if they are forced to respond to multiple, simultaneous crises. Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review found that responding to domestic climate disasters detracts from the ADF’s primary defense mission, causes concurrency risks, and decreases ADF readiness. Resolving this dilemma will be a key part of Australia adequately confronting its climate security risks and one of the challenges that the current government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is addressing.

Upon entering office in May 2022, the new Labor Party government inherited a significant policy gap on climate change and its national security implications. While the Albanese government’s major security policy documents are still in development, both the strategic review it commissioned to inform its future national defense strategy and the array of policies it has adopted so far indicate that it is serious about addressing the challenge. Together these are a promising start to raising Australia’s awareness of climate change’s national security implications and enhancing climate adaption and resilience. 

Raising awareness is a key part of mitigating climate risks and sustaining adaption and resilience-building efforts over the longer term. Including a climate change chapter in the strategic review and the government’s commitment to incorporate climate security issues in the upcoming national defense strategy should help ensure its consideration in long-term strategic planning alongside more traditional defense concerns. A related initiative is the classified Office of National Intelligence report that the Albanese government ordered to examine regional climate security risks. Alongside similar assessments, it should raise awareness of the challenge and inform Australian national security policy.

Several initiatives aimed at bolstering climate adaption and resilience also demonstrate the array of policies needed to contribute to an effective response. In its first year in office, the Albanese government established the National Emergency Management Agency to lead disaster response and recovery so that the ADF can focus on its primary defense mission. The government also established the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water to oversee Australia’s climate change efforts, and the government’s inaugural budget included $29 billion of climate and energy spending. This was followed in 2023 by further resilience bolstering initiatives, that include establishing the Disaster Ready Fund, developing Australia’s National Adaption Plan, and making climate adaption and mitigation efforts a central part of Australia’s development aid. A further initiative, to be completed later this year, is Australia’s first National Climate Risk Assessment. This should help Australians understand the danger posed by climate change and inform further government initiatives. While these initiatives are a promising start, the real test will be if Australia sustains and builds on these efforts over time to ensure that they keep pace with climate change.

A final example demonstrating how climate change and security concerns can be addressed through creative policy is the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union Treaty. The November 2023 treaty combines climate and security through its provisions to provide Tuvaluan citizens special pathways to live in Australia, expanded Australian commitments to support Tuvalu’s adaption efforts, and an obligation to come to Tuvalu’s aid in the case of military aggression, natural disasters, or public health emergency. The treaty also includes the unique ability for Australia to vet potential political and security agreements Tuvalu considers establishing with other states. The agreement is an innovative combination of climate and security that increases Australia’s influence and ability to shape the Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s domestic and international policy actions demonstrate that it is starting to fully recognize and address climate change’s impacts on its national security. Moving forward, the Albanese government—and all future governments—will need to maintain their awareness of how climate change interacts with national security and ensure that policy adaptions and resilience measures are implemented effectively. Failing to implement, sustain, and update these policies over time will lead to increased national security risks. Other countries, the United States included, should take heed, as Australia is not unique in facing these dangers: over the coming years and decades, every country will be forced to respond to their own combination of climate risks or face mounting consequences for their national security.

Steven Wachter is a second-year graduate student pursuing his MA in International Security at the Schar School. He holds a BA in History with a minor in International Studies from American University.  His research interests include grand strategy, US foreign policy and national security, and international security. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy and national security.

Photo can be found here.