Main page content

Australia should lead, not sleep walk, on climate security in the Indo-Pacific

Internationally, Australia resides in the region worst affected by climate change, a so called ‘disaster alley’. Robert Sturrock from the Centre of Policy Development argues that policy action to address climate vulnerabilities in Australia and the Indo-Pacific is not sufficient, and that Australia should offer leadership to encourage regional cooperation and prepare for climate crises.

Internationally, Australia resides in the region worst affected by climate change, so called ‘disaster alley’. Seven out of 10 of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change are in the Asia–Pacific, and Asia has approximately 90 percent of the world's risk of tropical cyclones.

This region is also adjusting to a more fluid and contested geopolitical order. The task is compounded by increasingly scarce food, energy and water situations aggravated by climate change. Emerging superpowers will be jostling for resource security alongside developing nations with fragile economies and equally fragile governments. Add to this complex security situation the risk of a retreating United States and the self-serving 'America First' rhetoric of the Trump Presidency.

Australia’s regional climate challenges are great but they are manageable so long as the nation acts decisively and urgently. Australia has a constructive and positive role to play in collaborating with our partners and neighbours in building climate resilience and improving regional human security. We can strengthen both our hard and soft power with the right approach. However, we still lag behind the leading climate security efforts of the US, UK and NATO.

The Australian Government should learn the lessons from our closest allies and develop a credible, shrewd long-term strategy for dealing with climate security challenges. This strategy should identify not just threats but also opportunities for Australia to strengthen and deepen its ties within the Indo–Pacific through action on climate security, especially key regional neighbours such as the ASEAN nations.

Australia should offer leadership that encourages regional cooperation on defence preparedness for climate crises. Australia should undertake climatic risk assessments with allies like Japan and the US, and strategic partners like Indonesia to identify critical regional vulnerabilities and to then develop joint responses. This includes likely humanitarian flashpoints in the region (such as population displacement in Bangladesh or extreme heat fatalities and power outages in India and Pakistan) exacerbated by climate change as well as mapping present and future resource insecurities.

Executing effective joint-responses to humanitarian and natural disasters will be pivotal in coming years. Similarly, war-gaming scenarios should be undertaken that plan for climate security challenges such as energy shortages, natural disasters or climate-induced population displacement. Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) for instance offer a valuable array of partners with which to undertake such activity.

Our long national sleepwalk on climate security policy must end. Failure to act leaves Australia more insecure and vulnerable as a result.

Rob Sturrock, Policy Director and lead author, The Longest Conflict: Australia’s Climate Security Challenge, Centre for Policy Development, Sydney, Australia

Island nations affected by climate change | Photo credits: United Nations Photo/ [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]