Climate change could spark a global breakdown of government and civil society but Australia’s response to this major national security threat is inadequate, the National Bushfire and Climate Summit 2020 heard on Tuesday night.
“Climate change is creating multiple flashpoints for where conflict could occur in the future,” Cheryl Durrant, Climate Councillor and former Director of Defence Preparedness told the 3,000-strong online audience.
Ms Durrant pointed to South Asia as a region at risk, particularly because India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons.
“It’s difficult to see regions in middle latitudes existing under current heat and water stress projections, and that’s a particular concern for Defence. You’ve got nuclear armed countries in those regions,” she said.
Ms Durrant was speaking at the launch of the Bushfire and Climate Summit 2020, organised by Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, a coalition of 33 former fire and emergency chiefs.
Ms Durrant said while the Defence Department had done some planning around climate-related disasters, last summer’s bushfires took them by surprise.
“We had war-gamed multiple disasters occurring concurrently, but the disasters that occurred last summer were fundamentally different from what we had anticipated. What was really different was the duration of the operational phase of the disaster,” said Ms Durrant.
“A crisis like a flood or fire usually lasts a few days or weeks at most. But this crisis went on for weeks and months as fires moved around Australia,” she said.
She said that as fire seasons lengthen, “the opportunity for Defence to plan and conduct its major exercises and training… is becoming very compressed.”
While countries like the United States under Barack Obama, the United Kingdom and New Zealand have incorporated climate change into their national security strategies, Australia has not responded with the necessary urgency, said Ms Durrant.
“By and large, the past 10 years have been a barren field for government action on climate change. Climate change hasn’t been a security issue that is bipartisan; it is a very divided political environment.
“Defence forces around the world have succeeded when there has been political will. But without integration as part of a national security strategy—which some nations have, but we don’t—it doesn’t get you very far,” said Ms Durrant.
Climate Councillor Professor Lesley Hughes told the summit that governments had listened to scientists on COVID-19 and they needed to start listening to the experts on climate change.
Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said the biggest opportunity for change was to push state and local governments, as well as business, to deliver solutions like 100 per cent renewable energy, electric transport, and land management.
“We can’t necessarily expect that the Federal Government will lead in the future. Local and state governments together represent a majority of the emissions that we need to be getting down, so we can make a big difference through those avenues,” said Ms McKenzie.