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Climate change and security in the Pacific: Opportunities and challenges for regional cooperation

By Lachlan Melsom

Climate change presents both an opportunity and a challenge for cooperation between Australia, Pacific Island countries and New Zealand on regional security issues. The predicted effects of rising temperatures will have significant implications for regional security, creating new challenges for policymakers. However, these challenges may provide opportunities for the strengthening of regional ties as overcoming them will necessarily require cooperation between regional states.

One obvious challenge presented by climate change for regional cooperation is the perception in Pacific Island countries that Australia is not doing enough to reduce its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. The Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe Declaration on Regional Security states that climate change is “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. Rising sea levels, increased incidence of extreme weather events and pressure on food and water security pose a direct existential threat to many small island states.

The Morrison Government’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’, launched in 2018, outlines Australia’s strategy for the Pacific. However, it was silent on the issue of climate change. The Government’s perceived inaction on climate change due to its continued support of the coal industry, has prompted negative comments by leading figures in the Pacific. Frank Bainimarama, the former president of the UN’s Conference of the Parties (its leading climate body), notoriously declared that Australia and New Zealand should be ousted from the Pacific Islands Forum.

Positive relations and engagement are the bedrock for strategic cooperation. Strategic cooperation with Pacific Island states is incredibly important to Australian national security as it allows us to develop and utilise asymmetric advantages as well as to prevent a standing Chinese military presence in Australia’s near neighbourhood.

The existential threat that climate change poses for small island nations also creates a unique set of security risks for Australia and New Zealand. For example, mass migration from the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand is a very real possibility over the next century which brings with it many challenges.

Dealing with this potential crisis in a way that protects Australian and New Zealand interests while upholding our humanitarian values will require extensive cooperation with Pacific Island countries.

Aside from these two issues, the effects of climate change threaten regional stability in a number of other ways. This is due to predicted impacts such as food and water insecurity, natural disasters, energy insecurity, disruption of supply chains, increased strains on weak institutions and reshaping power balances.

Increased regional instability will be detrimental to Australia’s national security interests as well as the security of the region more generally. For example, political instability caused by new strains on weak institutions could lead to conflict. This has already been seen in Syria, where the current conflict was preceded by the worst drought in the nation’s history.

Navigating these challenges will require careful, consistent and extensive cooperation between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island countries. While governments have a responsibility in driving this cooperation, civil society and the private sector will also have an important part to play.

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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