Australia election: Climate the most important security issue, say military and political leaders

Penny Wong

As voters in Australia head to the polls on 21 May, there is increasing debate over the link between climate change and security.

Capitalising on the heated debate around the China-Solomon Islands security agreement, a range of former military, intelligence and political leaders have highlighted the importance of climate change as the central security issue in the islands region. There are growing critiques of the failure of climate policy under the Coalition government that has been in office since 2013 under Prime Ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

Admiral Chris Barrie (Rtd) is the former Chief of Defence for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In the midst of the Australian election campaign, Barrie has released a statement on behalf of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group, which links retired military officers and defence officials.

“Australia continues to ignore the very plain facts that climate change represents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and wellbeing of Pacific people and this, in turn, has huge security implications for Australia,” Barrie said. “Pacific island leaders have clearly and repeatedly identified climate change as the greatest threat to their peoples’ future security.”

The former military leader said: “Pacific governments have long argued that climate change and security are inter-linked. The key to Australia’s successful re-engagement in the Pacific is a Pacific Climate and Security Initiative that would give priority to the Pacific’s needs.”

In their 2021 report ‘Missing in Action’, the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group called on the incoming government to make new commitments to the Green Climate Fund, and upgrade mitigation actions “consistent with the Pacific’s focus on warming of less than 1.5 degree Celsius.”

These concerns are echoed by other senior security and intelligence figures, such as Nick Warner – former Special Co-ordinator for RAMSI, former Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence and head of the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS).

Writing in the Australian Financial Review, Warner lamented the way successive governments have “squandered the chance to build deep and enduring relations with our neighbours in the South Pacific.” He noted especially that “our position on climate change has undermined our standing, importantly with Prime Minister Bainimarama in Fiji.”

Opposition pledges initiatives

Several members of the Coalition government – including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – are facing strong election challenges from independent candidates who have made climate policy a central plank in their campaign. In the lead up to the 21 May national poll, the opposition Australian Labor Party has also made a series of commitments on climate change in the Pacific.

As she announced “Labor’s Plan for a Stronger Pacific Family”, shadow ALP Foreign Minister Penny Wong said: “Nothing is more central to the security and economies of the Pacific than climate change.”

Beyond initiatives on labour mobility, military training, international broadcasting and a pledge of A$525 million extra development aid for the Pacific over the next four years, the new ALP policy commits to “restore Australia’s climate leadership, and listen and act on Pacific Island warnings of the existential threat of climate change.”

Launching the policy on 26 April, Wong announced: “We will establish a Pacific Climate Infrastructure Financing Partnership to support climate and clean energy infrastructure projects in Pacific countries, in addition to our bid to co-host a future UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Australia with our Pacific partners.”

The two major contenders for government, the ALP and the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) have both pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. However Labor has committed to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison has maintained the longstanding Coalition target of a 26-28% reduction by 2030. He refused to issue new, upgraded targets when he attended last year’s COP26 global climate talks in Glasgow.

The Coalition has pledged an additional $2 billion Climate Solutions Fund for farmers, small businesses and Indigenous communities to reduce emissions, while the ALP will extend the Safeguard Mechanism to bring down emissions from Australia’s biggest corporate emitters. Unlike the Coalition, Labor will not use any left-over Kyoto credits to meet Australia’s Paris

Agreement obligations for emissions reduction. Labor has committed to restoring and reforming the Climate Change Authority and doubling the investment in the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) by A$10 billion, to support new investment in renewable generation, better energy distribution grids and battery storage.

Neither party, however, has announced detailed commitments on adaptation or loss and damage in their climate finance agenda, and neither has policies that can reduce emissions at the rate advocated by the latest reports on mitigation and adaptation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Coalition has committed to the expansion of the gas and coal industry during the climate transition, despite repeated calls from many Forum Island Countries for an end to new fossil fuel projects. Members of the ALP Right faction have also publicly supported the expansion of coal mining in New South Wales and Queensland. With an economy currently reliant on export of minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural products, key Labor leaders are reluctant to lose votes in traditional Labor heartland seats in coal mining districts in Queensland and New South Wales.

Last year, deputy ALP leader Richard Marles told Islands Business: “Coal has played a really important part in our economy and will do so for a long time to come. We certainly need to be making sure that we are validating and celebrating the role that coal miners and their families have played in the Australian economy and the role they will continue to play.” Any ALP climate policy will “recognise the place of coal within our economy for some time to come.”

Pacific voices decry great power contention

As the Australia media is consumed by the security implications of the new China-Solomon Islands security agreement, a range of Pacific leaders, past and present, are seeking to refocus the debate on the priorities of island nations.

The Pacific Elders Voice brings together a range of former presidents, prime ministers and government ministers and scholars from across the region, who continue to speak out of issues of regional concern.

In a new statement released on 29 April, the network of elder statesmen and women said: “The growing military tension in the Pacific region created by both China and the United States and its allies, including Australia, does little to address the real threat to the region caused by climate change. These nations have done very little to address their own greenhouse gas emissions, despite statements of intent by the nations.”

The Pacific Elders Voice group includes former Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea, former Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, former US congressman Robert Underwood of Guahan (Guam), former Fiji Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola, retired USP scholar Konai Helu Thaman and former presidents Anote Tong of Kiribati, Tommy Remengesau Jr of Palau and Hilda C. Heine of the Marshall Islands (the first woman to serve as RMI President, appointed last year as pro-Chancellor of the regional University of the South Pacific).

At a time of increasing US-China strategic competition across the region, the Pacific Elders Voice statement notes: “We are concerned that major powers, including the US, Japan and Australia, are developing strategies and policies for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with little, if any, consultation with Pacific Island countries. … The security and future of the Pacific must be determined primarily by Pacific Island countries and not by external powers competing over strategic interests within our region.”

The group issued “a call to our regional partners, particularly Australia, to undertake credible and urgent actions on climate change, to demonstrate their genuine commitment and empathy for this biggest security threat to the Pacific Island states.”