Militarism and Climate Change in Australia

An opinion piece by Graeme Dunstan, 2 November 2015

With PM Abbott gone and climate change denial dropping away, agencies everywhere, government and otherwise, are searching for their role in it, putting in their bids now for future relevance and future funding.

On 28 October I was pleased to witness the first public acknowledgement, the first public embrace, of climate change by the Australian Defence Forces. Hosted by the UNSW Faculty of Military Studies and The Climate Council, it took the form of a public presentation by what was dubbed the Australian Climate Security Panel and it took place at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

The panel comprised retired navy brass from the US, UK and Australian: Rear Admiral David Titley, USN (Ret.), who initiated and led the US Navy's Task Force on Climate Change whilst serving in the Pentagon; Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, RN (Ret.), who acted as the UK Government's Climate and Energy Security Envoy; Admiral Chris Barrie (Ret.), Australia's former Chief of Defence 1998-2002: and Professor Will Steffen, world leading climate change expert and Climate Councillor.

The audience numbered about 80 and comprised other grey heads in suits, presumably Department of Defence personnel and more retired brass, a scattering of peace and climate change activists and a bunch ADFA cadets in uniform.

One can only welcome and applaud the initiative. It's the beginning of a long conversation and a big rethink of militarism in this land.

The Powerpoint climate change picture the Panel painted was solid in its science and the mood was urgent. And there was a lot of operational speak and stale ideas too.

Still it is good to have the military catching up. Naturally enough there were some gaps, blind spots and abundant self interest in the opening military narrative.

Climate change brings the military particular infrastructure concerns as for example the impact on coastal bases of rising sea levels. The US Naval base at Diego Garcia from which the US commands the Indian Ocean and directs its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has a present elevation of just 1.5 m above sea level. "And that's on a good day," quipped Admiral Titley.

Overall the Panel seemed to see the military essentially as a ready responder to coming climate catastrophes. The military was not seen as a major carbon polluter in its own right. For example a 2010 report on US bases in Colorado (23,000 troops) had greenhouse output equivalent to a small-scale industrial coal-burning power plant.

Another 2010 report found that multiple studies indicate US spending on military protection of maritime oil transit routes incurs an annual cost of roughly $100 billion per year.

"Threat multiplier" are the buzz words for the military response to climate change. By which is meant that the military will have to deal with all the present threats to national security and more and more so.

"Mass uncontrolled migrations" was listed as a major concern; 'stopping the boats' now institutionalised as a key naval responsibility. Presumably naval guns will have a role protecting Border Force vessels keep inundated Pacific islanders bobbing at sea before being transferred to corporate concentration camps.

A fundamental assumption was that the military will also have a key role in maintaining stability and security in times of natural disasters. The case study quoted was the present catastrophe in Syria and Admiral Titley devoted an entire slide to this. Syria, it was said, suffered a worst ever drought which forced migration to the cities where social unrest became civil war.

Hearing this my internal bullshit detector went off, lights flashing. This sounded to me like more disinformation from the US propaganda war against Syria's Assad government.

This drought causal narrative was not new to me. But it came to me not from Damascus or the Syria war watchers which i follow. Rather it came from Brooklyn USA in the form of a comic doing the rounds of climate change FaceBook networks.

Now there may be a flutter of truth in the proposition. But as a factor in creating the present disaster in Syria, it I can only weigh less than an eye lash on the elephant in the room. The disaster in Syria is 99% the direct consequence of US 'regime change' policies, it's proxy war there.

This truth ought be writ large: the biggest population displacement crisis since WW2 has not come from climate change but rather from militarism. Could it be that militarism and military solutions are part of the problem?

Come Q&A, as first questioner i made myself unpopular by arguing rather than questioning. i challenged Admiral Titley and he responded by saying i had misheard and that he had said there were many causal factors for the war in Syria. Odd that he hadn't bothered to give 'regime change' a mention?

When pressed the Admiral called to the audience: "Hands up who wants to live under the Assad regime?" Already unpopular i made myself more so by mirroring his call: "Hands up who wants to live under the Obama regime?" All but no-one wanted either.

Do climate catastrophes necessarily and inevitably produce security problems? I doubt this.

For example none of the Australian climate change disasters of recent times - seven years of drought, bush fires in Victoria, cyclones in North Queensland, flooding in Brisbane - have led to social instability nor have they needed security force interventions.

To the contrary they have been events which have produced enormous social cohesion. These 'disasters' saw massive community cooperative responses, with citizen volunteers turning out to help along side all-of-government responses. ADF personnel were a welcome addition to this, but not an essential one. No guns were required.

Climate change as a cause of war? Or climate change as a smoke screen for war and military spending?

Admiral Barrie was the last panel speaker and he was convinced that the extra responsibilities which climate change would bring the Australian military called for a bigger ADF and increased military spending.

But maybe it would be a better use of resources to downsize the military and upgrade local area civil emergency services - cops, fieries and ambos. Better to see us using climate emergencies to built civil responsiveness, capacity and resilience rather than preparing for war.

Maybe an urgent and necessary national response to climate change is to end the toxic US alliance which commits our military to futile and wasteful wars and perverts the very meaning of national security.

For sure there will be no binding international agreements on climate change while the US and Israel act as rogue states and undermine the United Nations as a maintainer of international security and a coordinator of disaster relief.

For sure, an efficacious national response to climate change is in no need of foreign wars, submarines, attack helicopters, F35 fighter jets and khaki elections.

But let the climate change dreaming begin for the ADF.

Personally I will believe the ADF is serious, rather than self serving, when i see it supporting the citizen 'Earth armies' of these times such as Frontline Action on Coal and standing guard to protect farm land and ground water from foreign owned corporations bent on extracting coal and coal seam gas to fuel more climate change.

That would truly be a defence force to be proud of.

Graeme Dunstan
2 November 2015

Peacebus shows off its new mural in Blamey Square, Russell, ACT. in preparation for the End the War on Syria open mike SpeakOut it will convene there on 11 November 2015.


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