Oceania | Diplomacy | Economy | Oceania

Climate Change Brings Geopolitical Complications for Australia

As Australia struggles with climate changes impacts, so too will its neighbors.

By Christopher Ryan for
Climate Change Brings Geopolitical Complications for Australia
Credit: Pixabay

Recent catastrophic fires have made all too apparent the risks Australia faces due to global warming, exacerbated by a lack of coordinated Australian state and federal policy. Australia’s vulnerability to climate change is also aggravated by its geography. Australia is surrounded by developing countries such as Timor-Leste that do not have the resources, skills, knowledge, and infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate change in the coming decades.

The impacts from climate change on developing countries include water and food insecurity, as well as the destruction of homes and livelihoods in catastrophic events. This leads to the potential for environmental refugees and internally displaced people as recently witnessed in Australia and Australia’s Pacific neighbors, like Kiribati. To contain regional security threats from climate change will require a budget shift away from Australia’s traditional defense resources in order to manage its national, regional, and global responsibilities, as we have demonstrated by the recent Australian wildfires.

The last Australian Defense White Paper, published in 2016 when Malcom Turnbull was prime minister, briefly outlined the challenges of climate change and the geopolitical implications. Throughout his political career, Turnbull was consistently outspoken on the critical importance of effective climate change policy both nationally and regionally. This created immense opposition within his own party, ultimately resulting in his downfall.

Even under Turnbull, the 2016 Defense White Paper was the only federal analysis in the context of climate change and its geopolitical complications for Australia – and it was only briefly mentioned. This is in stark contrast to previous defense white papers, where the geopolitical implications of climate change for Australia were far more prominent and detailed. The rise of China and its regional ambitions received more attention than climate change did in the 2016 paper.

Despite the Australian government’s apparent disinterest in the subject, climate change is considered one of the greatest threats to local, national, and regional security for Australia and other regional countries in the 21st century. Climate change will impact the capacity of governments to ensure food and water security for their growing populations while causing major internal and regional disruptions.

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It is estimated that climate change will be a driver of forced migration, especially among those who live in coastal low-lying regions where erosion is common – like much of the Pacific island nations.

In the last decade, the Indo-Pacific region has experienced increases in ocean temperatures (with impacts on food stocks), increased drought and heatwaves, along with unforeseen negative externalities on nations such as Australia and its neighbors. These impacts, coupled with a continuous downturn in Australia’s foreign aid budget, will have dramatic geopolitical implications for the region in the coming decades to come.

Australia’s economy has long been underpinned by the country’s rich and diverse fossil fuel industries, such as coal, which have ensured long term economic prosperity across the country. But these same fossil fuels have now become Australia’s and the wider region’s greatest energy issue in relation to mitigating climate change outcomes.

In 2016 and 2017, Australia adjusted both the Paris and Doha agreements to the Kyoto Protocol. Attempting to appease climate activists in Australia, the Australian government says it is on track with its climate change strategies to reach Australia’s Paris Agreement obligations while the success of these targets is yet to be seen.

The Australian government appears determined to present a balanced picture, insisting that they are meeting their international obligations in the context of climate change policy both domestically and internationally. The Australian government aims to reduce carbon emissions by 5 percent by 2020 and approximately 27 percent by 2030 while promoting Australian and international investment in the renewable energy sector. Such investments will create new employment opportunities while underpinning innovation and a more sustainable Australia, even while mitigating further impacts from climate change. Australia has an abundance of natural resources such as the wind and sun to drive new energy industries.

In meeting their obligations, the Australian government hopes to engage with multinational organizations as well as local and state governments in creating pivotal climate change provisions. These types of strategies are expected to inspire Australia’s regional neighbors to initiate their own climate change policies while meeting their international obligations, which will be critical to their very survival. This will ensure regional partners can manage and mitigate climate change together while protecting critical food chains both on the land and in the sea.

Regional partnerships in the context of climate change policy will be critical as weather conditions worsen in the coming decades. This is highlighted by Australia’s ongoing fire and drought catastrophe, which has drained defense resources. Federal assets, including military troops, are being used to assist those affected by the bushfires, to prevent further fires, and to evacuate communities in imminent danger of fires themselves.

There has been a regional and global response to Australia’s 2019-20 summer bushfires, with manpower and resources offered and provided from Australia’s allies from all over the world. That solidarity is not entirely selfless, however — smoke from fire-ravaged communities has now encroached on Australia’s neighbors, which has created health and environmental issues.

The impacts from bushfires in Australia can be seen in New Zealand, where smoke has generated air pollution and other health issues affecting populations approximately 2,000 kilometers away. Australia’s fires thus threaten to impact New Zealand’s tourism and the country’s broader economy.

Climate change and extreme weather events will create unstable environments in the Pacific both geographically and ecologically. These factors will destabilize societies, further weakening already unstable governments in the region. Countries like Timor-Leste, one of Australia’s closest neighbors, have thus embraced the fight against climate change for their future and very survival. The impacts are already being felt, with crippling droughts in 2016, and a lack of poor water governance and unsustainable agricultural projects.

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Developing countries like Timor-Leste continue to need resources and financial assistance from developed countries such as Australia in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Australia has maintained close political, economic, and trade cooperation that has both enhanced and impeded the region’s climate change response at various times throughout history.

Notably, Australia has been at the forefront of international development for countries like Timor-Leste throughout the Indo-Pacific region since the 20th century. Australia has coordinated international peacekeeping campaigns, providing peace and stability during both internal and external threats to the stability of the region. Today, that commitment should include providing resources to mitigate against the threats of climate change in the coming decades.

Australia and its neighbors will require a paradigm shift in climate change governance from all stakeholders to mitigate the impacts of climate change in the 21st century.

Christopher Ryan is a former lecturer in International Relations and sustainability at Curtin University.