Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP calls on the government to release ONI climate security risk assessment

14 September 2023



I move to suspend standing orders to urgently debate this motion, because this goes to the heart of Australia's national security. It calls on the government, this motion, to urgently release a declassified version of the Office of National Intelligence report addressing Australia's climate threat and risk assessment. The government has had this report on its desk for 10 months now. Australians are entitled to know the threats and risks they face and whether their government is developing a strategy to address those risks. This is an urgent issue that should, in fact, be debated with urgency, in particular in the terms set out in the motion. The recent disasters in other nations highlight the level of threat and risk that has now been caused by worsening and exhilarating global heating. A humanitarian crisis is currently unfolding in Libya, more than 5300 people have been killed and at least 10,000 are missing after unprecedented rainfall caused two major dams to collapse, resulting in entire communities being washed away, with many bodies swept out to sea. After triggering catastrophic flooding in Greece, Turkiye, and Bulgaria last week, Libya's national centre of meteorology reported that storm Daniel dropped a reported 414 millimetres of rain, more than 16 inches in just 24 hours. The catastrophe in Libya is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of fossil-fuelled unnatural disasters that have wrought havoc on cities and towns around the world over the past three months.

These disasters are now occurring almost daily have been driven by the unprecedented sea and air temperature records that have left scientists around the world shocked. And yet, in Australia, the government continues with business as usual, approving coal and gas projects, refusing to acknowledge the urgency and severity of the situation that increase their actions. This is not about mitigation, I appreciate efforts are being done on that front, but, sadly, there is now so much warming and emissions that are baked into the system we are now seeing an escalation of consequences and risks. Australians remember all too well the events of 2019, the bushfires, then the floods, and as we see from events around the world the safety risks and threats are increasing. And that is why it is urgent to debate this motion and why I moved to suspend standing orders since leave is not granted, to deal with the situation. It is urgent that Australia understands the level of threat and risk it faces from cascading and compounding national security threats that are now emerging from accelerated global heating or, as the UN describes it, global boiling.

National security is a core responsibility of every government and effectively identifying threats is fundamental to a government's ability to ensure the security of its citizens and I appreciate the presence of the Climate Change and Energy Minister here, but, respectfully, that is on the question of mitigation and the preparation for domestic disasters. The key question is how prepared are we in national security and Defence? The Defence Minister needs to show that the government, I think the failure of the Defence Minister to be here to address this motion shows the government still does not recognise the national security threat posed by accelerating global warming.

There is a gaping hole in Australia's national security, and that's been clearly identified by our allies but it's being kept secret from the Australian public here. The Defence Strategic Review released in April 2023 contained only a brief reference to climate change threats: acknowledging climate change as a national security issue, noting that it will increase the challenges for Australia and its defence, in particular noting that accelerating climate events risk overwhelming the government's capacity and the ADF's capacity to respond effectively and defend Australia. But this is only a reference in relation to the use of ADF personnel in responding to catastrophes. There is no mention of the internationally accepted findings that the impact of climate change will drive regional instability and conflict in our region, with mass population displacement, food and water insecurity, and major catastrophes impacting Australia's safety. With respect, AUKUS submarines will not protect Australians from these threats, but there appears to be very little focus or strategy to respond to a threat in this respect.

In late 2022, the government received a risk assessment from the Office of National Intelligence focussed on national security threats emerging from now rapidly accelerating global warming. Australia's allies, including the US, the UK, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands in conjunction with the EU, have all released declassified versions of climate security risk assessments, yet the Australian government has repeatedly rejected calls from former Australian defence chiefs, members of the crossbench, to publicly release a declassified version of the climate security risk assessment. If the ONI report makes similar conclusions to climate risk assessments completed by other nations, including Australia's allies, it likely includes findings that the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris agreement goals. It would also likely draw the conclusion that security risks emerging from climate change are compounding and will have devastating impacts in the coming decades.

A similar risk assessment conducted by the UK government-funded security thinktank Chatham House in 2021 concluded that cascasding climate impacts will drive political instability and greater national insecurity and fuel regional and international conflict. The now 2-year-old risk assessment found that global crop yields will likely drop by 30 per cent by 2050, at the same time that food demand is set to increase by 50 per cent. Earlier this year the Turning the Tide report found that the world faces the prospect of a 40 per cent shortfall of fresh water supply by as soon as 2030. While food and water shortages may not immediately impact Australia, it's the indirect impacts resulting from geopolitical instability and mass migration in our region that should be of immense concern to all members of parliament.

In its own publicly released risk assessment, the US National Intelligence Council identified our region of Southeast Asia as one of two regions of great concern. It identifies Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and a number of Pacific island nations as highly vulnerable to climate change. The US report singles out India, Pakistan and Burma as countries of particular concern which are at extreme risk of experiencing regional conflict over shared water resources from the Himalyas and Tibetan plateau. This effectively puts hundreds of millions of people in our region at risk of severe food and water shortages in the near term. The resulting humanitarian crisis would be at a scale never before seen in the world and would result in unprecedented waves of mass migration, geopolitical instability, and conflict in our region. How can Australia possibly secure its borders in the face of that kind of mass migration and that level of climate refugees in Southeast Asia? Former Australian Defence chiefs note we would simply be overwhelmed by such events. That is why it is crucial that Australia develop a strategy for how to mitigate these risks in our national security. Ensuring food and water security in our region could be our greatest weapon in defending Australia against such threats.

The World Economic Forum places failure to mitigate climate change as the number one global risk over the next decade. Second is failure of climate change adaptation, followed by natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. The risk of traditional military conflict through geo-economic confrontation is much lower. It is listed at number nine.

This week crossbenchers were briefed by former defence chief Retired Admiral Chris Barrie and Retired Air Vice Marshall John Blackburn who clearly stated that climate disruption is the greatest threat to the future security of Australians and to the global relationships between states. They have made it their mission for the past four years to highlight the now undeniable truth that climate change is by far the biggest security threat facing Australia.

So why is the Australian government keeping secret from the Australian people what it knows about the magnitude of this threat? Why have other political parties and relevant committees of the Senate and House of Representatives not been briefed on the contents of the ONI report? How can members of parliament effectively discharge their duties and oversee policy making and departmental performance in Defence, climate, immigration, intelligence and foreign affairs portfolios when crucial information pertaining to climate risk has not been available to them? Elected officials cannot do their jobs in making and reviewing climate policy when they are kept in the dark by the government of the true scale of the security risks. So I call on this to be released and I call on the members of the Opposition, who pride themselves on being focused on security and safety, to address this risk. This is the greatest threat to Australian safety and security and must be addressed.