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Climate Security in the South Pacific: Australia’s Perspective

An Australian Army soldier from 25/49 Royal Queensland Regiment watches the backburn operations as he awaits clearance and escorts through an active fire zone for delivery and setup of two bouywalls.

The impact of climate change is becoming more evident in Australia, leading to profound environment, social and economic impacts. 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year since records began in 1910, with 40% less rainfall than average across the nation, and the annual national mean maximum temperature at 2.09ºC above average. This hot, dry weather led to the devastating Black Summer bushfires, in which 33 people directly lost their lives (and hundreds more subsequently passed from smoke-related illnesses), almost three billion native animals died or were displaced, and almost 19 million hectares of land was burnt. The ADF response through Operation Bushfire Assist involved more than 6,500 personnel, including the first compulsory call-out of around 3,000 reservists. Alongside these impacts, the security implications are also becoming increasingly clear. And nowhere are these concerns as visible or confronting as in Australia’s local region – the South Pacific.

Research I conducted in 2020 sought to understand Australia’s securitisation of climate change in the South Pacific. It analysed the securitising move within ‘speech acts’, such as key strategic documents and speeches from prominent Government ministers, to examine how the threat posed by climate change in the region is described. This was then compared to the ‘security practice’, being real-life climate security activities that Australia undertakes in the region to secure itself from this threat. In doing so, two underlying narratives were uncovered that inform how Australia views the security implications of climate change in its local region: ‘disaster’ and ‘disorder’. These narratives are closely linked to the historic characterisations of the South Pacific as an ‘arc’ of instability, opportunity or special responsibility.

The ‘disaster’ narrative is easily reflected by the way in which natural disasters are recognised as the most direct security threat posed by climate change, and disaster response is framed as the most likely requirement for military involvement. Early climate security discourse in Australia also focused on the importance of increasing and enhancing the military response to natural disasters as a result of climate change, along with the need to expand humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) capabilities. Within the 2016 Defence White Paper, it was recognised that Australia’s ‘strategic weight, proximity and resources place high expectations on us to respond to instability or natural disasters, and climate change means we will be called on to do so more often.’ More recently, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) asserted that ‘disaster response and resilience measures demand a higher priority in Defence planning.’

One example of Australia’s response to such an event was Operation Fiji Assist, conducted after Tropical Cyclone (TC) Winston. Winston made landfall in Fiji as a category-5 storm in February 2016. It is recognised as one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere, with wind gusts in excess of 306km/h recorded at Vanuabalavu before the weather station was destroyed. An estimated 60% of the Fijian population was affected, including the deaths of 44 people and a further 130,000 displaced. The deployment on Operation Fiji Assist included more than 1000 personnel and cost $4.7 million. Army provided a significant contribution to Joint Task Force 635 through the deployment aviation, engineering, medical and logistics assets. The Australian Government subsequently committed $15 million in humanitarian assistance and an additional $20 million to rebuild critical infrastructure and increase resilience to natural disasters as a result of TC Winston.

The other key narrative informing Australia’s conceptualisation of climate security in the South Pacific centres on the concept of ‘disorder’. There are two distinct but interrelated elements of the disorder narrative, both of which are closely connected to the historical ‘arc of instability’ depiction of the region. Firstly, the disorder narrative refers to Australian concerns that climate change will result in state fragility within Pacific Island Countries (PICs), which could then contribute to destabilising the region. Within the DSU and Defence Environmental Strategy, climate change is commonly framed as the cause of instability through its capacity to compound with other issues, such as governance challenges, slow economic growth and rapid urbanisation.

The second element of the disorder narrative is the potential for climate change to undermine the regional security order that best suits Australia’s strategic interests. The perception of Australia as being dismissive of the urgency and significant of climate change for PICs has already affected Australia’s reputation in the region. Consequently, some PICs have sought to utilise regional governance systems (of which Australia is not a part) to advocate for stronger climate policy. Additionally, many PICs have sought external financing for climate change adaption projects, leading to Australian concerns about the possibility of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ in the region (although these do not yet seem to be substantiated).

The disorder narrative has already shaped how Australia engages in climate security activities in the region. This has predominantly occurred through the increased emphasis on cooperative partnerships with PICs, in order to respond to the security impacts of climate change. For example, the Vuvale Partnership Agreement (signed between Australia and Fiji in September 2019) highlights the importance of building a close defence relationship between both countries, and cooperating on a bilateral and regional level to combat climate change. Australia’s proactive efforts to fund the Blackrock HADR Camp in Nadi demonstrates this intent clearly. Australia’s securitisation of climate change in the South Pacific has therefore reflected its desire to exclude the influence of external powers in the region and to position itself as the principal security partner for PICs.

The implications of climate change on the future operations of the ADF are significant. Army must continue to prepare for the increased likelihood of HADR and stability operations in the South Pacific if it is to meet the security threat posed by climate change as identified by the Australian Government. In particular, responding to requests for assistance from neighbouring states in the wake of natural disasters, or instability intensified by climate change, will become more frequent over the next 50 years. In this way, the ADF forms a critical instrument at the disposal of the Government to ensure regional security and prosperity. The Chief of Army’s Accelerated Warfare Statement has already recognised climate change as being a driver of change in our region. Whilst this indicates a positive attitude towards preparedness, more specific planning and action will be required by the ADF – if the Black Summer bushfires are any indication, this is likely to be sooner than expected.

As the Chair of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC (Retd), noted in his recent report, ‘what was unprecedented is now our future … unprecedented is not a reason to be unprepared. We need to be prepared for the future.’

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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