Briefing: Climate change needs to be central to Australia’s national security agenda

170904 National Security News

Climate change needs to be central to Australia’s national security agenda 

Andrew Petersen, CEO, Sustainable Business Australia

With the events to our immediate north, national security, indeed international security, has been in the news a lot lately – and with good reason. The world has changed significantly this decade through seismic geopolitical shifts. It is also changing through climate shifts. Both have significant impacts for national security and Australia has more to lose than most when it comes to the impact of climate change on national security.

In recent weeks, the most devastating floods to hit South Asia in a decade killed 1400 people and “more than 45 million people were adversely affected by incessant sheets of rain across the three countries” (New Daily). To the east, Hong Kong was lashed by two “T8” typhoons in 24 hours. The scale doesn’t  ‘go to 11’ – it goes to 10 – but point made.

And then there’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Our television news bulletins have been full of harrowing, pictures from Texas. Things are big in Texas and Hurricane Harvey caused the dumping 33 trillion gallons of water on land. In terms we can relate (if that were possible!) to – that’s 250 Sydney Harbours of water.

So, imagine for a moment if 250 Sydney Harbours worth of rain fell in the space of a week over Sydney, Illawarra and Hunter Valley. Widespread destruction would ensue; power would be cut; business would grind to a halt; consumer sentiment would be suppressed; supply chain restoration would take years not weeks; local, state and federal government budgets would be crippled and, impact to GDP would be appreciable. In short, the trifecta of economic, energy and national security would all be under threat.

The catastrophic weather in east Asia and the southern United States has in part been linked to climate change. Yes, there’s always been powerful storms but they’re getting more ferocious and frequent as water temperatures increase globally. It is only going to get worse with coastal areas being the most impacted. It is worth noting 85 percent of Australia lives within 50 kilometres of the coast.

It is therefore timely for the Senate in the Australian Parliament to be conducting an inquiry into the national security implications of climate change. As the country’s peak business body on sustainable development, Sustainable Business Australia, contributed by making a submission to the inquiry, the only such organisation to do so, to date. You can read the Terms of Reference and our submission at the end of this article.

Climate change poses multiple threats on industries and businesses across Australia. The notion of national security transcends beyond the military paradigm and incorporates the threats to the social and economic well-­being of Australia. The logic is clear and the evidence is manifest.

Severe and unpredictable weather conditions will increase the vulnerability of Australia’s natural ecosystems and resources, thus posing a significant threat to the future growth of Australian business, enterprise, and investment. The more frequent occurrence of floods, droughts, desertification, as well as the long-term threat to property and infrastructure due to rising sea levels represent just some of the major challenges climate change poses for business operations. These challenges will have direct implications for commerce nationally and globally, as well as the potential breakdown in the human system that make our societies work. In short, the economic and social implications will be profound, with a major effect on Australia as an export dominated economy.

Climate change will have a domino effect on agricultural and production operations. In 2015-­16 the gross value of Australia’s agricultural production was $56 billion (ABS 2017). The agricultural industry is heavily dependent on the availability of resources such as water and fertile land. With the prevalence of unfavourable conditions such as drought and desertification, Australian farmers will face multiple challenges that could significantly impede production. A reduction in the supply of agricultural products and water availability may threaten Australia’s food security, increase commodity prices, create social and political unrest, inflation, and eventually an economic slowdown. With such a scenario, business will not be as usual.

Australia is a major food exporting country, with agricultural products accounting for 14 percent of total exports in 2015 (DFAT 2017). Water scarcity as a result of climate change will affect the production, quality, and prices of wheat, meat and dairy in Australia. Growing demand from Australia’s trading partners will place enormous pressure on the agricultural industry to maintain supply and quality of its exports. Furthermore, rising temperatures may lead to changes in pest growth and migration, which will catalyse the spread of diseases and threaten Australia’s biosecurity. The challenges climate change will impose may significantly disrupt supply and the quality of produce and foodstuff, potentially creating regional instability.

The primary link between climate change and national security is instability, which can have a devastating impact on the availability of critical resources such as water, food, and energy. These systems represent key components of business inputs and outputs. The effects that the agricultural industry may face will ripple into various other national and global industries. A threat to food and water security may cripple the societal and economic wellbeing of the region surrounding Australia. Climate change will act as a threat multiplier, exacerbating potential threats such as poverty, political instability, and economic shocks, thus further threatening Australia’s national security (Barrie and Steffen 2015).

Then there’s climate refugees. Anywhere between 150 million and 200 million will be impacted by a sea level rise associated with a temperature rise of 2 °C. There are reports citing much higher numbers. Asia is the part of the world most greatly impacted by rising sea levels and more frequent and ferocious weather events. There will be many in our part of the world requiring help, evacuation, repatriation and permanent or temporary settlement or resettlement.

The Australian Government’s Defence White Paper of February 2016 did speak to the issue of climate change but didn’t specifically triangulate climate change, migration and national security (Australian Government 2016). The Australian Government’s 2012 document “Australia in the Asian century” makes numerous remarks about climate change, the risks to communities and threats to regional security (Australian Government 2012). However, reflecting the fractious nature of politics at the time, omits to address the issue of ‘climate refugees’. Australia’s defence and immigration policy areas are playing down the impact in country of climate change related issues and the high likelihood the need for disaster relief, temporary relocation, settlement or resettlement involving Australia. This is a policy failure which the Senate Inquiry needs to address.

As our military operates under a framework of risk preparedness every day and recognises that it will never have 100 percent certainty about any threat it faces, so must our policymakers integrate the range of probabilities associated with the impacts of climate change into all of its domestic economic and infrastructure planning and risk assessments in order to increase resilience here in Australia.

Australia’s efforts to combat climate change by investing in clean energy and new technology now could serve to mitigate the damage already done as well as meet our Agenda2030 aspirations under the Sustainable Development Goals (including SDG7 and SDG 13); ensuring key resources are protected not just for future generations, but as key inputs for future economic growth. As the world’s driest continent and an important and influential force in Asian security, Australia can also be a leader on sustainable growth approaches. It is necessary to address not only energy and climate security but also critical issues facing the country, such as declining agricultural productivity and water availability.

As a nation, we have not even begun to adequately prepare for changing the strength and severity of storms, floods and bushfires, and that leaves our citizens and our economy vulnerable. To forestall the worst outcomes, Australia must recognise climate change as a threat multiplier to society that demands a whole-­of­‐society approach; in this way, it will enable Australia, led by business, 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.


  • Audio discussionwith SBA CEO Andrew Petersen (9m 30s)
  • SBA Submission
  • Agenda 2030
  • SDG 7– Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • SDG 13– Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • SDG 16– Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Background: Parliament of Australia – the Senate

Implications of climate change for Australia’s national security.

On 14 June 2017 the Senate referred the matter to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for inquiry and report by 4 December 2017.

Terms of Reference: The implications of climate change for Australia’s national security with particular reference to:

  • the threats and long-term risks posed by climate change to national security and international security, including those canvassed in the National security implications of climate-related risks and a changing climate report by the United States Department of Defense;
  • the role of both humanitarian and military response in addressing climate change, and the means by which these responses are implemented;
  • the capacity and preparedness of Australia’s relevant national security agencies to respond to climate change risks in our region;
  • the role of Australia’s overseas development assistance in climate change mitigation and adaptation more broadly;
  • the role of climate mitigation policies in reducing national security risks; and
  • any other related matters.

Submission sources

ABS, 2017, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2015-16, ,
Accessed: 25 July 2017

DFAT, 2017, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Trade and Investment Topics: Agriculture,Accessed: 25 July 2017

Barrie C. & Steffen W., 2015, Climate Council, Be Prepared: Climate Change, Security and Australia’s Defence Force,  
Accessed: 25 July 2017

Article sources

Australian Government 2012, Australian Government , Australia in the Asian Century, Accessed 1 June 2017

Australian Government, 2016, Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper, Accessed: 5 September 2017

Jain R. and Wilkes T., 2017, Reuters, Worst floods to hit South Asia in decade expose lack of monsoon planning, Accessed 5 September 2017

Fritz A. and Samenow J., 2017, Washington Post, Harvey unloaded 33 trillion gallons of water in the U.S., Accessed 5 September 2017

Plummer F., 2017, New Daily, South Asia floods: the world’s forgotten ‘catastrophe’, Accessed 5 September 2017


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