The following piece was published 26 March 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
The Defence Department says climate change is being considered in strategic planning - but is it being treated seriously enough?
The Defence Department has reiterated that the effects of climate change are a factor being considered in defence planning.
The statement follows a report claiming that the Australian Defence Force is not prepared for the future challenges presented by climate change.
Ildi Amon reports.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says an increase in climate change-related incidents will see the Australian Defence Force engaged in more humanitarian and disaster relief missions.
Institute spokesman Anthony Bergin says so far, the A-D-F hasn't given the issue high enough priority.
"The 2009 Defence White Paper really dismissed climate change as an issue. It said there'd be no strategic consequences of climate change before 2030. But I don't think that's the case any more. We're already seeing the downstream implication of climate change in our region and on the home front."
In a written statement to SBS, a Defence Department spokesman says a defence policy paper to be issued later this year will reiterate climate change is being considered in strategic planning.
"Defence continues to examine the factors that will affect Australia's strategic environment, such as technological, demographic, environmental and other developments which may impact on Defence's planning and operational environment. Defence's capabilities provide options to present to Government should the ADF be requested to respond to security challenges that may be caused by changes in climate."
The Public Policy Institute's report says Australia and Asia are already experiencing an increase in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters such as floods, bushfires and tsunamis.
And Doctor Bergin says the Defence Force's workload in non-combat missions will grow substantially in the coming decades.
"They need to take on board that humanitarian and disaster response missions associated with a change in climate are now going to be core business for the ADF. So, for example, they should dedicate parts of the Force for those missions."
The report says sea level rises and extreme weather events, such as storm surges, could result in water and food scarcity and the displacement of people from their homes.
Dr Bergin says this could destabilise the region and pose a threat to Australia's security in the coming decades.
"I don't think Defence at this stage have considered the potential stressors, the threat multipliers that climate change could cause so the report argues that there should be a climate advisor appointed to advise on the whole range of risks and threats of climate change and what it might mean for defence operations, defence equipment, defence training and so forth."
Among those welcoming the report is the director of the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Andrew Pitman.
He says it's in line with earlier reports done by defence planners in the United States and Britain, describing the growing threat of climate change.
Professor Pitman says the challenge is for the Australian Defence Force to be able to deal with several simultaneous emergencies.
"It's not about the military not being able to cope with an emergency. They demonstrably can. It's the ability of the military to cope with two or three simultaneous emergencies spread across our region that would exceed their capacity to cope, I think."
Professor Pitman says defence planners need to acknowledge that Australia and the South East Asian region are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.
And he says they need to realise that such events are occurring at a faster rate than previously thought.
"There has been a genuine sense by governments of all persuasions that global warming and climate change is something that's going to occur gradually, slowly over time. The scientists are becoming much more aware that it's happening rapidly and the need to plan aggressively has never been more obvious."
The Public Policy Institute's report also says the A-D-F must work with other organisations and government agencies and ensure personnel have the right equipment and training.
Professor Pitman says, for example, Defence Force equipment should be able to withstand prolonged heatwaves.
"Dealing with climate change is a health issue, an infrastructure issue, a social issue, a scientific issue, an environmental issue and many, many others. And to deal with it in a properly coordinated and integrated way, requires a central agency firmly held under the Prime Minister and Cabinet in order to make sure we could line up the various solutions to global warming."
In its written statement to SBS, the Defence Department's spokesman says it already discusses climate change issues with other government departments, and with non-government organisations.
"Defence is a member of a number of inter-departmental activities on climate change, and consults regularly with the then Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, the Bureau of Meteorology, local councils and other interested parties."
Director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Lucy Manne, says she's pleased that more people are realising that climate change is not just an environmental issue.
She says action is needed now to avoid the worst impacts.
"The most important step is actually to ensure that we don't see the worst-case scenario. We're at a point where we're approaching tipping points in our climate system and the best science says we have between three to five years to actually avoid the worst impacts of climate change. So I think the most important take home message for all the decision-makers is that it isn't too late. We can still act and that's what the focus should be."