Is climate change a security threat? The Pentagon thinks so.

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North Dakota-Minnesota border at Red River by Flickr User US Army, licensed under CC by 2.0

The world’s leading militaries are addressing climate change now.

In October, the Pentagon released its most comprehensive climate change plan ever. It identifies climate change as an immediate threat that must be dealt with now. The UK has also announced that the impacts of climate change will be integrated into future military planning. The UK and US are not alone, with more than 70 per cent of countries in the world identifying climate change as a threat to national security.

What does climate change have to do with security?

Soaring global temperatures, rising sea levels and increases in extreme weather events will play a role in intensifying conflicts, increasing the displacement of people and worsening the extent of destruction caused by natural disasters.

Defence departments commonly identify climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’. This means that climate change plays a role in making existing challenges worse. Take armed conflict as an example. Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can affect the availability of food and water and increase the likelihood of significant human migration and resettlement. Struggles over essential resources and the increased movement of people within countries and across borders can play a role in making conflict worse.

As defence forces across the globe are traditionally the bodies expected to engage in conflict and to assist during humanitarian disasters, they are forging ahead with plans on how to operate in a world that is increasingly being shaped by a changing climate.

What exactly are militaries doing about it?

The responses of militaries to climate change usually fall into two categories: mitigation (considering how the military can reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (planning how the military will cope with a changing climate).

The US serves as a good example. Their defence force has attempted to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. For example, the US Navy has committed to developing a Great Green Fleet with ships powered by biofuel (made from a combination of used cooking oil and algae). This helps to tackle the Navy’s energy security problem as well as reducing emissions. The US has also begun climate change adaptation planning. For example, the US Department of Defence is considering how to prepare as it is called upon more and more to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as extreme weather-related disasters become more frequent and intense.

The US defence force is just one of many militaries that is considering how to respond to climate change.

How is Australia’s military responding?

Australia’s Department of Defence has acknowledged that global energy, food and water are under pressure from climate change. It has also noted that coastal flooding in low-lying regions, an increase in natural disasters and changes in rainfall patterns will affect agricultural production and potentially contribute to large-scale human migration. Australia’s defence force is aware that the effects of climate change, combined with pressure on resources, will increase the risk of insecurity and conflict. However, they are yet to join their key military allies in outlining a comprehensive response to climate change.

The decisions we make in defence planning are considerably costly. Australia will spend $80,281,391.78 per day on Defence funding for the 2014-15 financial year. We need to use that money effectively, to tackle the biggest challenges that will confront our defence force and national security over the coming decades. Currently the 2015 Australian Defence White Paper is being written. This is a document that outlines our nation's defence strategy for the years to come. It is vital that this document includes a comprehensive assessment of the security threats presented by climate change.

The evidence is clear and compelling. Climate change is happening now. Militaries are already seeking to mitigate and adapt to climate change and other sectors must do the same. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel put it best when he said that politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning.

Defence forces cannot afford to be caught unprepared for the very real challenges presented by a warming planet, and neither should governments.

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