Chief of Defence Force's speech on climate risks

July 15, 2019

MONDAY, 15 JULY 2019

SUBJECTS:  Chief of the Defence Force’s speech on climate risks; impacts of climate change on security in the Asia-Pacific; climate refugees; Defence spending; nuclear weapons; Future Submarines project.
JONATHAN GREEN: Experts in the military have been warning us about the security challenges posed by climate change. That problem it appears is front and centre in the mind of Australia's Defence Chief Angus Campbell. At a speech last month General Campbell said that responding to natural disasters placed an ever growing strain on defence capabilities. And China, he is reported to have said, may take advantage of rising sea levels to occupy abandoned Pacific islands. Pat Conroy is Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence, International Development and the Pacific. He joins us now. Pat welcome. 
PAT CONROY: Afternoon. 
GREEN: One of the great benefits of the military I guess is they can speak their mind free of the constraints of politics. What did you make of General Campbell's remarks?

CONROY: Well they were remarkable in their acuity and their honesty, to be honest. And I wish an elected representative of the Government would be so forthright in identifying climate change as a massive destabilising force in our region. And the Government's poor response is undermining our status in the Pacific as well. They were the two key messages out of that speech.
GREEN: There's an interesting twin track here is there not, I mean a government position that I imagine would not talk with any great frankness about the migration challenges that may be created by climate change and yet here is the Australian military, the body that will have to in the initial instance contend with that as a problem quite openly preparing itself for that possibility.
CONROY: And quite sensibly doing that. For example the Pentagon has been identifying climate change as a key instability for close to a decade now so the Australian Defence Force is not on its own in identifying this key risk. And it yet again emphasises the policy vacuum and quite frankly the moral black hole in the Federal Government’s response to climate change. Leave aside altruism, our lack of response to climate change is actually undermining our status in our region and consequently compromising national security.
GREEN: What were your key take-outs from General Campbell's speech?
CONROY: Well I think the first one is that for our near neighbours in the Pacific climate change is the number one existential threat for the region. And our Step Up into the region, as important as it is, is being undermined by the Government's inaction on climate change. So that was take-out number one. And take-out number two was the huge impact climate change will have in our region and the impact that will have in destabilising nations, causing flows of climate refugees, affecting economies far and wide and destabilising the entire geopolitical structure of the Asia-Pacific.
GREEN: Extraordinary implications in that last part. I mean General Campbell he doesn't mention China by name but he raises this prospect of a territorial expansion into abandoned Pacific islands. That's quite dramatic. 
CONROY: It is quite dramatic. I haven't heard that in other places, so I'd be interested to learn more about that. But the influence of nations like China is already increasing, partly because they're perceived to be acting more on climate change through the Paris treaty and we've been perceived, and I think quite accurately, as not fulfilling the obligations of the treaty that we signed up to. So nations like China are increasing influence in the region quite understandably and part of that is because they're perceived as being more attuned to the Pacific’s focus on climate change action than we are.

GREEN: That lack of equivalence that you describe between the political position on climate change and that of the military, is that acting to undermine the military preparedness?

CONROY: Well I think it makes it more complicated because you can't speak frankly with your allies and partners if you're worried about, that the Government will be trying to censor you. And I know for example that in many Pacific diplomatic forums Australia is seen and is acting to remove words around climate change from any of the communiques, from any of the negotiating positions. So that undermines the ADF's position and it undermines the entire region's attempts to adapt to climate change. The Boe Declaration, for example, signed last year identified climate change as the number one existential threat to the region and it's well known that the Australian Government did everything it could to water that Declaration down.
GREEN: There is the potential for rising sea levels, for the changes of climate change to displace many people, perhaps as many as 100 million people in our region. Scott Morrison proudly stands on his record of stopping the boats. This is a different order of magnitude in a potential migration crisis.
CONROY: Absolutely. It is a key strategic challenge that military forces around the world will have, particularly in our region given the fact that some of our neighbours are so at risk. For example, Tuvalu, the highest point of land on Tuvalu is one and a half metres above sea level. You've got Bangladesh obviously in South Asia that is incredibly at risk at times. You will see nations lose a lot of their land. Their economies will be undermined. Their sustainability will be undermined. And that logically will drive another wave of refugees around the world unless we take strong action on climate change right now.

GREEN: How desirable would Australia be in that sort of circumstance?

CONROY: Well it’s careful not to be going into hypotheticals too much, but many of our near neighbours are facing a life or death challenge. And they'll see a big island land mass near them that won't be affected as much just because the nature of the size of Australia and the fact that we have a very advanced economy. So we will be impacted through those flows. I think the focus of all governments should be on avoiding and mitigating climate change, making sure that the Paris treaty is actually implemented properly so that we limit global warming and therefore limit the number of climate refugees we will see.
GREEN: In a circumstance though with millions of people on the move because their homes have become either uninhabitable or inundated, somewhere like Australia would have a moral obligation to accept those people would it not?
CONROY: I don't want to go down that path too much because as I said I'm focused, and the Labor Party is focused on developing policies to avoid that scenario. But obviously ...
GREEN: And yet the Defence Department or the defence forces clearly war-gaming, if we can use that word, that possibility. 
CONROY: Absolutely and it's incumbent upon them to model and prepare for all scenarios and there is certainly a scenario where unconstrained global warming leads to millions of refugees looking for new homes around the world. And every government, every military needs to plan for that. They need to understand implications of that. But as I said the step before that is to actually try and mitigate climate change, avoid it, put in place actions to actually reduce carbon emissions so that we don't get into that position in the first place.
GREEN: On another matter Pat Conroy, the defence expert Professor Hugh White. Now he's recommended Australia boost its defence spending to 4 per cent of GDP. The US in his argument is a less reliable ally under the Trump administration. Is that sort of an increase, is that sort of a rationale a good idea?
CONROY: Well I note that Hugh's thesis has been fiercely contested in the public domain, which is understandable. I think both sides of politics ...
GREEN: Where do you sit in that conversation?
CONROY: Well I don't regard the US as an unreliable ally. I think that our relationship with the United States is strong. It can always be strengthened but it's very strong at the moment we've got very good communications with them and based on shared values and a shared approach to supporting democracy around the world. And both sides of politics are committed to increasing defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP. I'm yet to see an argument that demonstrates the need to increase it beyond that to be frank. But Hugh as a public intellectual is performing his role of being provocative about what can go on in the future and obviously his thesis about the United States being challenged and retreating is one that's greatly concerning but I don't think that's what is occurring. I think our relationship with the US is very strong and it should continue to be so.

GREEN: Another of his provocations was that Australia should consider developing nuclear weapons. Is that something forseeably in the Australian future?

CONROY: No it's not. The Labor Party is deeply committed to reducing the stock of nuclear weapons around the world and working with our allies to do that. We don't want to see more nations being armed with nuclear weapons. And it's incumbent upon us to be a good international partner in reducing them.
GREEN: Will Australia's $90 billion French submarine fleet be obsolete by the time it's built?
CONROY: Well I'm greatly concerned about the management of this project from the Australian Government. When Tony Abbott signed up to the contract in 2015 he said the submarines would be in the water from 2025 onwards. Now people are talking about 2035 onwards. So we've already seen a slippage in the submarines of 10 years. We've seen a lack of transparency. We're seeing pressure from the French company to move work back to France from Adelaide. And we're seeing mismanagement by a government that has got a revolving door of defence ministers. So I'm greatly concerned about the project's viability under this government because they're not very good at managing defence projects. They talk about how ...
GREEN: How would you fix that?
CONROY: Well one area is to focus much more on accountability within acquisition projects to make sure that as much as possible is transparent out there. I'm not talking about compromising national security in terms of secrets but more transparency leads to greater project performance. So I think that's an important first step. A second step is getting a razor sharp focus within the Defence bureaucracy of the need to make sure that these projects are working properly. For example, Labor instituted a projects of concern process where projects that were at risk of running over budget or over time had regular focus from ministers. There was a ministerial briefing every month at a staff level and regular forums between a minister, the Department and the industry, the companies involved, to make sure that these projects were on track. Having political attention and focus on these projects ramped up the pressure and made sure that all the actors were working appropriately. We're hearing that the projects of concern process has basically disappeared, that ministerial forums happen every one or two years, which isn't a surprise since we seem to have a new defence industry minister for example every day of the week. So they would be the two focuses. Increased transparency and increased political oversight to make sure that the culture is delivering on these projects. But as I said, a 10 year slippage in the delivery of these submarines, the fact that the Department doesn't seem to be engaging in whether lithium batteries should be included in the submarines despite the fact that our Japanese partners already have lithium batteries in their submarines, South Korea is looking at putting them in place, and we're talking about excluding them from a submarine that won't even hit the water for another 16 years - seems very short sighted to me. 
GREEN: Pat Conroy thanks for your time.

CONROY: Not a problem.