Australia hides behind a wall of secrecy and obfuscation when it comes to climate breakdown

Coal Mine Australia
The Mt Owen mine is seen at Glencore Plc’s Mount Owen Complex coal operations in this aerial photograph taken near Singleton, Australia.

Faced with the gut-wrenching horrors occurring in the Ukraine, Ethiopia, Sudan, Myanmar and the Middle East, it’s hard to fathom that an even more calamitous global tragedy is already upon us – climate breakdown. The enormity of what we’re facing is almost beyond our comprehension. Yet here we are. The more I think about this, the more I fix on those violent, greedy corporations who have, often knowingly, embarked on a murderous path. They are variously complicit in planetary destruction. Bombs rein down on Gaza, many of them made in the US, while corporations knowingly swat aside the consequences of their rapacious hunt for profits. The actions of such callous entities are the drivers of incalculable human suffering and environmental damage.  Now, they’re taking the entire planet to the existential brink.

A library full of scientific reports indicate that we’re careering inexorably toward climate catastrophe, with the lives of billions of people and umpteen non-human species at great risk. According to UNHCR and other agencies, millions of people have already been internally displaced or have sought refuge in other countries as a result of changing climatic conditions.  It’s a situation that’s set to get worse, and quickly. Predictive models can barely keep up with the pace of change. Climate records are being broken with alarming regularity and hopes of driving down global emissions have been dashed by weak or failed global agreements and increasing investments in fossil fuels by some of the world’s most powerful entities.

Climate activists, especially young people, remain acutely aware of the risks. On 17 November thousands of school kids marched through towns and cities across Australia calling, once again, for urgent climate action. This in the knowledge that their own national government, a supposedly enlightened administration dedicated to promoting clean energy, continues to subsidize fossil fuel industries while at the same time approving new and expanded coal mines and gas fields. 

This schizophrenic approach to public policy would be laughable if it weren’t so deadly serious. For the kids who marched, the collective sense of frustration and cynicism is palpable – and entirely understandable.  Since the school strike rallies in 2019 when over 300,000 Australians protested alongside millions of others across the globe, progress on emissions reduction has, at best, been woefully inadequate.

Meanwhile, the profits of the fossil fuel sector have soared to new heights.  “I’m here at parliament, lobbying the government to acknowledge a duty of care to young people that we have a right to a healthy future, a climate-safe future”, said one young protestor in what surely must feel like a déjà vu attempt to persuade corporate barons and policy makers about the dire necessity of bold, urgent action. For some, the modest emissions targets, and the vacuous promises aired at COP and other global forums are simply too little, too late. The question now is what capacity, if any, have nations got to withstand what’s at hand. Truth told, no-one knows the precise pace and scale of the unfolding catastrophe that will engulf the world, impacting mostly on the poorest and least polluting nations.

In Australia – one of the most vulnerable continents   on the planet – governments have barely begun to comprehend let alone address the adaptive responses required. In fact, unlike many other nations, Australian civil society is being denied the very information it needs to calibrate its adaptive strategies. Political discourse is largely framed around vague promises that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to acceptable levels and that all will turn out well in the end. Despite prevailing trends, we’re told that there’s still hope of avoiding the worst. But that’s a cruel illusion. Even if Australia were overnight to rein in its emissions – which is unlikely given the revenue generated by fossil fuels – the climate emergency is a global problem. Various tipping points have already been reached and feedback loops and multiplier effects have kicked in. The fact is that globally, emissions are rising, and will continue to do so, according to recent reports, until 2030, if not beyond.

It’s in this troubling context that the government-commissioned Office of National Intelligence (ONI) report into national security threats posed by global heating takes on such enormous significance. The ONI, an independent statutory agency which reports directly to the prime minister. It plays a major role in identifying national security risks. Yet the secrecy surrounding the climate report means that its nigh impossible to know anything about its terms of reference, let alone the actual contents. Even the date of its completion has been kept under wraps. A search of the ONI’s website contains no mention of the report. The PM advised parliament in late August that the completed report will go to the national security committee and that he makes “no apologies for not releasing national security advice”. This is hardly reassuring.

The assessment was prompted by a government submission to the UN which stated its intention to undertake, “an urgent climate risk assessment of the implications of climate change for national security, which will be an enduring feature of Australia’s climate action”. Despite a number of parliamentary questions and promptings by former defence chiefs and security analysts, Albanese has taken to hiding behind the walls of state secrecy. In response to persistent questions from Greens defence spokesperson David Shoebridge, the prime minister said: “Along with the government’s climate statement, tabled in parliament on 1 December 2022, there is already considerable material available in the public domain discussing national security threats from climate change”. Which begs the question, if it’s more of the same then why not just release the findings?  That said, there was in fact barely any mention of national security in the climate statement. Nonetheless, it’s clear that climate threats are pressing on the minds of senior government ministers.  The deputy PM Richard Marles in a speech last year to the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies said: “no one and no country is immune” from the impacts of climate change which, he insisted, was a “national security issue”. Albanese has said much the same in the recent past.

If there’s one thing the Australian public is surely entitled to, it is to be treated as citizens who have the right to know the security risks posed by global heating. Shockingly, there remains an alarming absence of information on such matters. As noted earlier this year by Murdoch University’s international relations scholar Tobias Ide in the Australian Journal of International Affairs: “While scholars have explored the human security implications of climate change and climate security discourses in Australia, systematic scientific assessments of climate change and national security are scarce”. In seeking to fill this knowledge gap, Ide draws on numerous studies to map the likely impacts on Australia before 2050, concluding that, “climate change will very likely undermine Australia’s national security by disrupting critical infrastructure, by challenging the capacity of the defence force, by increasing the risk of domestic political instability in Australia’s immediate region, by reducing the capabilities of partner countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and by interrupting important supply chains. These impacts will matter most if several large-scale disasters co-occur or if Australia becomes involved in a major international conflict. By contrast, international wars, large-scale migration, and adverse impacts on key international partners are only minor climate-related risks”.

The consequences of all this for civil society are profound, resulting in increased conflict, resource depletion and the likelihood of societal breakdown. While considerable funding has gone into emergency management, community resilience projects and practical adaptation, it remains unclear as to how families, neighbourhoods and communities will respond to more frequent and extreme weather events. And even less is known about how governments plan to restructure economies so that communities can be offered some degree of protection. The record so far, especially following the 2022 floods, is that governments do not provide the sorts of financial and other help required by victims of such events.

The controversy over the ONI report boils down to how governments choose to respond to climate breakdown. The temptation to slide into authoritarian rule is real, especially if there are threats to civil order or where there are significant population movements. We’ve already seen the early signs of authoritarian reaction around the world in the form of ethno-nationalist fortress states, and in security regimes that obsess with secrecy and information control. It’s also reflected in Australia’s own policies on refugees and vacillations over whistle-blowers and the ongoing imprisonment of Julian Assange. But the suppression of information that might enable civil society to respond more effectively to climate breakdown renders communities even more vulnerable than they already are.

That is unacceptable. We need to know what’s in that report.

Richard Hil is Adjunct Professor in the School of Health Sciences and Social Work, Griffith University, Goild Coast, Australia

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