Scott Morrison describes climate change as a national security issue. He’s right, but not in the way he imagines.
If global warming exacerbates conflict, conflict also exacerbates warming, in a dialectic that fundamentally links decarbonization to the struggle for peace.
Climate change works as a crisis multiplier. As the global thermometer climbs, you get more refugees, more inequality, and more political instability, with high temperatures and natural disasters widening all social cracks.
Unsurprisingly, numerous studies warn that, on a greenhouse planet, extreme conditions intensify existing tensions, making civil wars, military incursions and even genocide more likely.
But this process goes both ways.
Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released a report that documented how war-torn nations suffer disproportionately from climate variability. As you might expect, conflicts make responding to global warming more difficult, as people and institutions struggling with war lack the capacity to deal with environmental disasters simultaneously.
Symptomatically, the majority of countries that have not yet ratified the Paris Agreement are countries that are either involved in conflict or recently emerged from conflict.
The ICRC report drew on the experiences of southern Iraq, northern Mali and the Central African Republic.
Rich countries should not, however, believe themselves to be immune.
If, for example, the tension over Taiwan escalated significantly, climate change would almost instantly disappear from the headlines. As they braced for an armed confrontation, neither Joe Biden nor Xi Jinping would talk about global warming.
It’s not just about getting distracted. It is also that preparations for war directly undermine climate action, with modern armies depending on huge amounts of fossil fuels.
In their book The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz note that a single B-52 bomber burns 12,000 liters of kerosene per hour while an F-15 fighter consumes 7,000 liters, figures “comparable to the consumption of an average family car over a decade”.
Unsurprisingly, a recent academic study described the US defense force as “one of the biggest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more greenhouse gases than most mid-sized countries. “.
In 2017 alone, the U.S. military purchased 269,230 barrels of oil per day, producing more than 25,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide from their use.
In times of geopolitical tensions, those dizzying numbers soar higher, as rival power blocs invest in more equipment and deploy it more often. Bonneuil and Fressoz estimate that between 10 and 15% of American emissions during the Cold War could be attributed to the military.
This is because war – and the prospect of war – normalizes environmentally destructive practices unthinkable in other contexts.
Think of Vietnam and how US forces deliberately sprayed some 70 million liters of herbicide on forests, in an attempt to destroy the blanket the North Vietnamese relied on.
Think about the first Gulf War and the use of depleted uranium in about 340 tons of missiles launched into Iraq.
Today, China has up to 350 nuclear weapons. The United States may have 5,800 of them. Deploying any of them would bring the global environmental crisis into new areas of horror.
As Cop26 approaches, we must remember that most of the carbon ever generated by mankind was released after the Kyoto summit, a conference at which politicians around the world solemnly pledged to cut emissions. .
If Glasgow is to be different, tensions between the United States and China must be addressed.
At a meeting in the Liberal Party Hall on Monday, Morrison reportedly linked his newfound enthusiasm for climate commitments to the Aukus military pact, almost as if a net-zero Australian commitment by 2050 was a quid pro quo for the nuclear submarine agreement with the United States.
In other words, it appears that carbon targets are seen as facilitating increased militarization.
It’s hard to overstate how dangerous it is.
Whatever politicians say, no one will decarbonize in a new cold war. An arms race in the Pacific therefore threatens any progress that may emerge from the Glasgow talks. The response to global warming requires international action – and it cannot be if China and the United States prepare for war.
Without peace there will be no climate action – and without climate action there will be no security for Australia or any other nation.