Australian Defence Response to a Changing Climate

27 February 2018 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Globally, governments are finding it necessary to include military contingency planning in preparation for the possible direct and indirect consequences of a changing climate.
  • Military forces are increasingly having to consider how they may deploy to respond to mass migration of climate-refugees displaced by famine or other, climate related, natural disasters.
  • The Defence White Paper of 2016 defines Australia’s climate change defence position as largely influenced by regional stability, particularly in Southeast Asia and the countries and island States of the Indo-Pacific.
  • Australian Defence Force preparedness for climate related crisis events will depend on timely, high quality information, resourcing and leadership.
  • Defence capabilities, doctrine, training and federal-state responsibilities will need to be considered, including their role within the Australian Emergency Management Framework.
  • Reserve forces may increasingly have a role to play, particularly within Australia. A review of training and deployment, together with legal and call-out implications may need to be considered.


There is an increasing recognition that realistic climate change scenarios predict events that have the potential to significantly impact on all aspects of society. Some developed nations are taking steps to prepare for climate driven, crisis events such as extreme weather disasters and large-scale population displacements. Defence forces are being engaged in this planning, as a function of government that has the capacity to contribute the logistics, communications and manpower if and when required. In Australia, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) may need to further consider its existing policies, doctrine, capabilities and resilience to respond to large-scale and prolonged environmental emergency. When operating within their conventional military roles, ADF personnel are able to mount timely and effective military responses. The direct and indirect effects of climate change, however, may challenge capability with new and unique circumstances and consequences.

The ADF is perhaps the only government function with the capacity to react to the broad range of possible climate change driven crises. These crises may include, but not be limited to, the provision and distribution of humanitarian aid, dealing with civil unrest, controlling mass climate refugee movement, capacity building and damage assessment. These events could occur simultaneously and in domestic and international theatres. Now is perhaps the time for Government to provide the direction and resourcing to the ADF to adequately meet its climate change response obligations.


Climate Change is Happening Now

Rising global temperatures are reportedly driven by a range of factors. Excess atmospheric greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, other industrial pollution, a rising global population, urbanisation and the destruction of rain forests have all been cited as contributors to global warming. Internationally, many scientists acknowledge that if the earth’s temperatures rise by between two and four degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels of the early 18th century, the effects and the damage caused could be irreversible.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the view that the effects of a changing climate may be wide-ranging and hard-felt. Severe weather events such as cyclonic storms could occur with greater frequency, causing flooding and storm surges, resulting in extensive devastation and loss of life. In other regions, drought and famine may ensue, particularly in the poorer parts of the world or those with large expanses of dryland habitat. Dust storms could denude the land of precious topsoil. Loss of vegetation will result in less soil carbon, meaning smaller and poorer quality crops. Bush fires will become hotter, more destructive and more frequent. The impact will be exacerbated by a diminishing capability from responding authorities with competing commitments. Hunger could drive mass migrations of ‘climate refugees’ as they attempt to find food. An estimated 150 – 300 million people could seek to migrate to better-resourced countries, including Australia from the over-populated Asia-Pacific region, or from the Middle East and Africa, driven by the diminishing capacity of countries to feed their people. By 2030 water security problems are projected to intensify to crisis levels. Agricultural and forestry productivity is likely to decline over much of southern and eastern Australia and parts of eastern New Zealand, due to increased drought and fire.

International Military Responses to the Effects of Climate Change

Internationally, governments are preparing to position and prepare their defence forces to respond to threats and security challenges posed by climate change.

In the United States, Congress tasked its defence force to identify climate-related security risks relevant to each of their Combatant Commands and articulate the associated mitigation strategies. As a consequence, the US Pentagon, in its 2014 Climate Change Adaption Roadmap, identified that global warming will bring new demands on the military and, significantly, ‘international humanitarian assistance missions will be more frequent in the face of more intense natural disasters’. The US Navy espouses a similar view that drought is one of several climate-related “threat multipliers” that, by stressing societies and states, increases the potential for violent conflict, linking recent violence in Syria to drought-induced food insecurity and migration from rural to urban areas.

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (MOD), in defining its strategic response to climate change, has committed to a holistic viewpoint ‘to ensure that environmental, social and economic threats, impacts and opportunities are fully taken into account in defence decisions and in the management of defence activities’. In 2012 the MOD was further obligated to participate in a Whole of Government approach to understanding how and where climate change will impact on national security in the UK and the preservation of peace and stability.

Displaced climate-refugeesFig 1: Displaced climate-refugees in Africa. Source: Pbraitsten, Flickr.

Member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have identified and articulated climate change factors of significance. A large proportion of the ASEAN population and economic activity is concentrated along coastlines and the region is heavily reliant on agriculture for livelihoods. There is also a high dependence on natural resources and forestry which are climate sensitive. The high levels of extreme poverty reduce the capacity to react effectively to climate related events. An observance and understanding of those factors lead to ASEAN Member States agreeing to ‘use their military personnel to assist to co-ordinate disaster relief and emergency response operations and facilitating trans-boundary movement of displaced persons’.

 Australian Military Responses to the Effects of Climate Change

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper identifies six key drivers shaping the development of Australia’s security environment to the year 2035. Climate change and the various environmental, social, economic and governance challenges associated with global warming, is one of these drivers. Broadly, the White Paper defines Australia’s climate change defence position as largely influenced by regional stability particularly in Southeast Asia and the countries and island States of the Indo-Pacific.

United Nations obligations require Australia to actively respond and contribute to international situations caused by climate induced natural disasters. Consistent with planning conducted in conjunction with the United States military, these will likely see the ADF mounting a Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) effort to assist displaced persons. Assistance could include the provision of food and water, medical support, crowd control and supporting local government officials. It could also mean personnel supporting recovery operations and clean up, including body recovery and identification.

The likelihood of Australian participation in an HA/DR missions will increase as climate change intensifies. To facilitate the mounting of an effective responses the ADF is having to consider its current capabilities, doctrine and training relevant to a climate changed induced threats. This will serve to increase preparedness to mount a response both internationally and domestically. Within that assessment, reference also needs to be made to reviewing the ADF’s responsibilities within the Australian Emergency Management Framework. This strategy informs and enables personnel, at all levels, to understand Federal and State responsibilities in preparing for, and responding to, a natural disaster or extreme weather event. This is important as an effective emergency response will require strong and close cohesion between authorities, civilian organisations and the ADF.

The Changing Physical Operational Environment

Climate change has been identified as a ‘threat multiplier’. It intersects with existing international problems of poor governance, reducing fresh water and food and increasing natural disasters. As a consequence, there will be an increasing obligation to devote scarce national resources to climate-related events.

While overseas disaster relief is likely to be shared with other nations, domestic events may have to be dealt with using only national resources. The Australian domestic future will not be immune to weather-induced emergency situations. Already, it can be assumed serious and large-scale bushfires can be expected, destroying thousands of hectares of arable lands and displacing many hundreds of people. Large stock losses can be anticipated and, in some cases, whole communities lost. Fires will also destroy many hectares of natural vegetation, resulting in the loss of biodiversity, habitat, native flora and fauna. Recent examples are the bushfires that caused massive devastation and loss of life in Victoria in 2009 and the 2016 fire in Western Australia where 69,000ha of land was destroyed and the historic township of Yarloop razed. Bushfires are not new to the Australian landscape, but good evidence is indicating they are becoming hotter, more frequent and in areas where they have not been recorded in the past.

Increasing cyclonic events in Australia’s north will threaten key infrastructure, the resources sector and maritime logistics and associated industries. The isolation of mining camps and townships will compound the damaging effects from increasingly intense cyclones. Rain-bearing depressions, causing flooding from high levels of rainfall as cyclones dissipate, will have the potential of decimating regional areas and will necessitate re-locating residents and providing emergency accommodation. In these aspects, as observed in Operation Flood Assist in Queensland in 2010-11, multiple ADF personnel (1,500) and military assets were committed to the post-flooding recovery activities.

ADF Planning for the Future in Response to Climate Change

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute states that the ADF needs to appreciate the changing physical battlespace. Just as it factors technology, the landscape and demographics into planning, it will become increasingly necessary to factor in the potentially de-stabilising impacts of extreme weather events domestically and throughout the region.

Compounding operational planning will be a requirement to identify and consider the possibility of multiple, concurrent situations necessitating a response. For example, it is not inconceivable that ADF assets could be tasked to assist with a serious bushfire situation in the southern region of the continent, while an intense cyclone threatens isolated and poorly resourced northern coastal townships. The complexity of these situations may be exacerbated by ADF personnel deploying to an international HA/DR assistance mission. In the United States, forces are now devoting time and effort to contingency planning for multiple, simultaneous event situations.

Dust stormFig 2: Dust storm, following drought, removes the topsoil. Source: Forrest Welsh

An Emphasis on the ADF’s Reserve Forces

The role of the ADF is to defend Australia against armed attack but also, within its capabilities, to support shared interests with partners and allies. This infers recognising an increased future requirement to support our near-neighbours, particularly in response to the effects of climate change. This will necessitate responders having the knowledge and skills to be able to meet the basic needs of the populace of partner nations and the local domestic general public. Those reasons dictate a requirement towards an increased focus to investing in training and equipment related to disaster response and management.

The priority of effort should be directed to, and concentrate on, Australia’s Defence Reserve Forces. Key factors influencing this judgment relate to the ADF’s personnel numbers and their geographic dispersal. In a climate change induced emergency where the ADF assistance is sought, it is likely full-time or Permanent forces will be deployed from areas with a large Defence presence such as Darwin, Townsville, Adelaide and Southeast Queensland. In time, those personnel will need to be rested and rotated. In states with few Permanent personnel, such as Western Australia and Tasmania, there is a limited immediate response capability and volunteer, part-time Reserve personnel require time to mobilise to reinforce local efforts. In the future, the situation could be exacerbated where multiple emergencies exist where forces are already deployed, particularly in the event of a requirement to deal with an HA/DR mission offshore. Finally, some of the ADF’s Permanently high-readiness forces will be committed to other high priority obligations.

For these reasons, a review of the roles and tasks of the Defence Reserve forces in a climate-changed operating environment may be necessary. With an emphasis on a workforce capability, the review could consider ways to engage, train and upskill Reserve force members to prepare them for HA/DA operations. Consideration would also have to be given to how best to  train and prepare Reserve personnel for the physical and psychological impacts of a disaster relief deployment. The review could also consider the legal implications of call out under existing legislation. A review strategy would provide and enable a heightened level of understanding of the limitations of utilising Reserves force members to provide assistance in the event of a climate change induced emergency.

Logistic support to Reserve forces to engage in future climate-oriented HA/DR and allied operations must also be a priority. Deploying forces must be suitably resourced and equipped to be able to deliver the desired effect of disaster relief, transportation and medical support. This should incorporate new or revised procurement policies that identify equipment requirements, and future stores’ holdings, that are consistent with anticipated needs as determined by emerging climate change doctrine.


The growing body of scientific research that supports the view that the global climate is changing is still in broad disagreement as to how severe these changes will be. Our capacity to prevent the worst climate change possibilities is also unclear. If directed, the ADF is likely to approach climate change contingency planning in a similar way to its planning for conventional military operations. This will include planning and preparing actions to meet the most likely events but will also include ways to deal with the worst case or most damaging events. The quality of these preparations depends on, firstly, the quality of the information that predicts what will occur (intelligence) and secondly, the provision of timely and adequate direction and resourcing. In many instances, existing military capability can be easily directed towards climate change related operation but not all. The prospect of a global future dominated by extreme weather events may seem, at best, alarmist but an inability to respond to extreme events would be unacceptable. The ADF is one Government resource with the culture and the potential capacity to respond to unlikely but possible extreme events should they occur. The key is timely: high quality information, resourcing and leadership.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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