Australia is no stranger to natural disasters. Heatwaves, bushfires, floods, earthquakes, landslides, cyclones—some would say these are the realities of living in our sunburnt country. As Queensland and New South Wales reel from the destruction of category four Ex-Cyclone Debbie, whose tail end just hit New Zealand and sent towns into states of emergency, it’s time for Australia to ask: how prepared are we for our increasingly unstable climate? Are we ready to handle the consequences? More importantly, are we taking enough preventative measures?
According to the Institute of Actuaries Australia, the Australian federal government’s spending on post-disaster relief and recovery ($560 million average per annum) is more than tenfold that of preventative disaster adaptation ($50 million). The ability of our emergency services to respond and coordinate their efforts is plain to see, with praiseworthy interagency cooperation between the SES, Queensland State Fire, Police, Ambulance services and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in the wake of Cyclone Debbie being our latest example.
While it’s clear that Australia is continually improving early-warning technology and response plans for foreseeable events, we should also focus on environmental “natural” disasters that our emergency services may face in the future. In their 2015 report titled “Be Prepared: Climate Change, Security and Australia’s Defence Force”, the Australian Climate Council found that the ‘ADF will increasingly be called upon to deliver humanitarian assistance in response to extreme weather and its impacts both at home and overseas’.
Beyond stressing the importance of climate change when considering our national security concerns, the report also found that the Australian government is taking comparatively less action to ensure its defence forces are prepared for the security risks posed by climate change. It also found that Australia is becoming out of step with its major allies that recognise this need, exposing Australia and Defence personnel more broadly to ‘considerable strategic risk’.
The US and UK governments have taken significant legislative and strategic steps to prioritise climate change in their defence agendas, according to the Climate Council. An integral step for Australia is to stay committed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement and its aim to keep global warming to a maximum increase of 2°C.
Our current government’s adequacy in this regard is questionable. Australia’s pledge at the 2015 COP21 in Paris was notably lower than those of comparable developed countries, the justification being that our pledge was proportionate because of Australia’s ‘higher population costs and the higher economic costs of global climate action on coal exports’.
Climate change experts have raised doubts that Australia’s emissions reduction Direct Action Plan will be able to deliver the target of 26-28% reduction by 2030. Other analysts predict that under our current policies, Australia’s national emissions ‘are projected to continue to increase through 2030 at least, with no reduction in sight’. This prediction is alarming, not just because modelling conducted by an economist at the behest of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade found there was only a slight increase in economic costs for a target of 35% versus 26-28%, meaning we could certainly aim higher. But because it raises questions of how seriously the Australian government is assessing the foreseeable security threats that global warming presents to Australia.
The Climate Council states that ‘we must adapt to the inevitable changes that are already occurring while working hard to minimise the long-term changes, some of which could be massive, abrupt and disruptive’. In the wake of Ex-Cyclone Debbie, and the integral role the ADF and other emergency services played in relief processes, it begs the question of how the Australian government can do more to ensure the security of our country.
If adaptation is critical to survival, Australia needs to refocus its efforts without delay.
Georgia Collins-Jennings is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.