Time to face climate change implications, analyst says
Reporter: Maxine McKew
MAXINE MCKEW, PRESENTER: The mass displacement of people is just one
of the alarming issues raised in a paper that was released this week.
The report is authored by Monash University scientist Grahame Pearman
and the Lowy Institute's Alan Dupont. It's designed as a wake-up call
for our senior policy makers to get them to start thinking seriously
about the complex security implications for our region in the event
of accelerated global warming. To talk more about what needs to be
done, I've been joined in the studio by Alan Dupont. Good evening.
ALAN DUPONT, SENIOR FELLOW, THE LOWY INSTITUTE: Good evening.
MAXINE MCKEW: Let's start at the beginning with y ou.WouldIberight
in saying that you started down this investigative path as a one-time
ALAN DUPONT: I think it's more correct to say I was an agnostic - I
had an open mind about it, I wasn't convinced either way and I felt I
needed to bring myself up to speed on the scientific debates and
understand better the scientific data, which I started to do about 10
MAXINE MCKEW: Having done that, what has persuaded you that this is
one of the most significant challenges we now face?
ALAN DUPONT: When I first looked at this 10 years ago, the jury was
still very much out on the scientific data. We didn't really know
with much precision what was going to happen over the next 100 years.
What's changed I think quite dramatically, certainly over the last
three to five years is we know a lot more about what is likely to
happen, what our climate future is likely to look like, a far greater
degree level of certainty about that. As a consequence, we can now
start to think through what the implications will be politically,
socially and in security terms.
MAXINE MCKEW: Let's just talk about the domestic situation for a
moment. You make the point in your paper that it's the rate at which
temperatures could rise. Is that correct?
ALAN DUPONT: That's right.
MAXINE MCKEW: If, say, we see a 2 degree warming, what is that going
to mean for Australia, based on the modelling that CSIRO and other
institutions have done?
ALAN DUPONT: OK, it's pretty hard to generalise about this in terms
of the whole Australian economy. You have to break it down a little
bit, but what we will see over the next 30 to 50 years is warmer
temperatures generally across the continent, fewer cold days. You
will see a drop off in rainfall in the south-east and the south-west
of the country, which of course is where the major population centres
are. You will see more hotter days inland than you are on the coast.
On the coast you will see more propensity for flooding. Most
important, you will see more intense cyclones over the next 50 to 100
MAXINE MCKEW: Are we prepared for this in terms of how we live, what
ALAN DUPONT: I don't think we are. We started to think about it. But
I don't think we've really gone far enough thinking that through just
for Australia, what those consequences are going to be. We certainly
haven't done so for the broader region.
MAXINE MCKEW: The climate change agnostics as you say - you were in
that camp at one stage - the agnostics are still thick on the ground
in this country and elsewhere. But we never hear in Australia, say,
the PM elevating this issue in the way that, say, Tony Blair and
other European leaders do. Absent that, are we going to get the kind
of coordinated planning around this issue that you are advocating in
ALAN DUPONT: We certainly haven't had it up till now, but I think
that the PM in the last couple of years has made it clear he believes
climate change is a serious issue, and I think most of the Howard
Cabinet are starting to come round to that view. But we haven't
really got to the point of actually putting in place comprehensive
plans for dealing with the consequence. I think one important reason
why we haven't is because there's not enough information being
provided to government about what those consequences are going to be
in terms of the things we've discussed in this paper. So I see this
as a significant contribution but much more research is needed by
universities, research institutes, about the broader connections
between climate change and security and what we need to do to
ameliorate the problem.
MAXINE MCKEW: How do you see the connections between climate change
and security then for the broader region?
ALAN DUPONT: I think there are a number of important connections.
When we think about rising temperatures and sea levels, we have to
ask ourselves what does that mean in practice? I think the sorts of
things that are pretty obvious to me are, one, if you're going to get
higher sea levels combined with storm surges, you're going to get
lots more flooding in low lying areas, particularly where our major
population centres are in Asia. If you think about where most of the
major cities are in the region, they're pretty much close to the
coast. Some of those cities will be severely flooded over the next
100 years and we will have to put in place strategies to relocate
people and the infrastructure that goes with it. Secondly, a lot of
the land is also the most fertile land where we grow a lot of our
crops. What are we going to do about that? That is just one small
area to look at. What about infectious diseases? As the temperature
rises, you will get increased prevalence of infectious diseases like
malaria and so on. So we need to think through all of these issues in
each sector and then link them up together and say, "What does it
MAXINE MCKEW: Just to pick up on one of those points, you mentioned
there massive flooding of some of the big Asian cities, and you
mentioned Shanghai, among others, in your paper. And we saw in the Al
Gore clip from his latest documentary that's just opened in the US
recently, he mentioned Shanghai as well. How on earth - is it
conceivable that the Chinese would be able to cope with, if you like,
one of their most significant economic centres going under water?
What would they do with tens of millions of people?
ALAN DUPONT: It's obviously an enormous problem for them. It's not an
insurmountable problem in the sense that, if you start planning for
an event that you think is going to happen over the next 30 to 50
years, you can deal with it, although with difficulty, I might add.
If you don't do anything about it and the flooding starts, then
you're really in trouble. So the whole point is to take early action,
but in order to do that we have to have more data about which areas
are going to be flooded over what period of time and what can be done
about it. For example, there are engineering solutions to some of
this stuff. You could build barricades in certain areas but in other
cases that doesn't make economic sense so you're going to have to
move people. So we need to know which areas we will have to move.
MAXINE MCKEW: How predictive can we be about this?
ALAN DUPONT: We are getting better at this literally as each year
goes by. When you see the next major assessment next year, you will
see the level of scientific certainty about climate change become
even more precise, and I would say within 10 or 15 years we are going
to know pretty clearly what the level of temperature increase will be
and sea level rise for our region quite specifically.
MAXINE MCKEW: Just to stick with Asia for a moment, how many of the
Asian leaders, for instance, are focusing on these issues in the way
that you're suggesting that Australian policy makers should?
ALAN DUPONT: I think some Asian leaders are thinking about it and
others are not. Singapore, for example, is clearly thinking about it.
They've set up a study group within their government to look at the
implications of climate change for Singapore - pretty obvious why,
because they're right at sea level, it's a city state. They will have
major problems from sea level rise. Other countries really haven't
thought about it because they have so many issues on their plate and
they see this as a long-term problem they don't have to deal with
now. But, when you read the material in this monograph, you will see
clearly that it's not a long-term problem, it's something we need to
address right now.
MAXINE MCKEW: In strategic terms, is it possible to say that
certainly in this century the balance of power could well be
determined not by marching armies or advancing armies but by these
big shifts caused by climate change?
ALAN DUPONT: I think the issue is a broader one than that. When you
think about security challenges, it's not only about military
challenges to state sovereignty of your country, it's about the sorts
of things that will destabilise the region, and Australia will get
caught up in the ripple effect of this if we're talk about south-west
Pacific, small island states, for example. But, in Asia, if you take
Indonesia for example, if there are going to be major problems with
sea level rise there, is there something Australia can do to help,
would that be a problem for us? We have to think about it more
broadly and generically in terms of broader regional stability
politically and also economically because it will have a huge
economic impact if some of these things occur as we think they will.
MAXINE MCKEW: Specifically you mentioned the Pacific there, they're
the most vulnerable, some of those Pacific states could disappear
altogether. What are our obligations to resettling those people in
ALAN DUPONT: Well I think there are problems for the Pacific island
countries but there are only really a handful of island states where
this is going to an issue - these are the ones very close to sea
level and there are relatively small numbers of people and most of
those will probably go to New Zealand or the United States because of
agreements already in place. The only small island state where that
doesn't apply is Kiribati. And we're talking a small number of
people. The bigger problem is in Asia where you're going to have
major movements of people within states, internal displacement, and
that will be, could potentially be quite destabilising.
MAXINE MCKEW: How destabilising? Do you see migration issues causing
much wider conflicts?
ALAN DUPONT: We've already seen the way in which movements of people
within states can cause political instability and it's happening now
in many, many countries in the region. We've seen it in Europe and
Asia. Climate change is going to be an additional driver. It's not
the only reason that people are going to move but it's going to be an
additional driver of population movements. Some experts think there
will be up to 150 million people displaced because of climate change
over the next 50 years.
MAXINE MCKEW: I've heard that figure, do you accept that's a
reasonable figure - 150 million?
ALAN DUPONT: The short answer is that I don't know what the figure
will be but I am certain there will be some people forced to move
because of climate change. How many, we don't know really.
MAXINE MCKEW: But that makes our current questions around migration
of peoples look like chicken feed, doesn't it?
ALAN DUPONT: Well, If you accept worst case projections, then it will
be a very serious problem. My point is that in the security business
you look at worst cases and you come up with contingency plans in
case they do happen. These might be low sort of probability events
but high impact. So you put a lot of time and effort into thinking
those through just in case they do happen.
MAXINE MCKEW: In fact you've got a chapter that you called Wild Cards
and among the wild cards you say there's the possibility of a really
abrupt dramatic shift in climate and that's a collapse of the major
circulatory currents in the deep oceans. Some might say if they read
that chapter that you've been watching too many Hollywood movies?
ALAN DUPONT: I am sure they might say that but I think if you read
it, it's a fairly sober analysis. There's a whole lot of things we're
pretty certain are going to happen. Let's look at those and let's
think about the security consequences. There's also another category
of issues relating to climate change which are worst case issues,
probably won't happen but they might happen. What's the probability?
Maybe 5%. Is that worth looking at? Yes, because the magnitude of the
impact would be so great. What are the sort of issues we're talking
about here? We're talking about accelerated glacial melt, melt of the
polar ice cap, which we think is going to happen now, by 2060 we
expect most of the polar ice to have disappeared almost entirely,
we're pretty confident about that. Could the Greenland ice shelf
melt? Maybe. 50-50 proposition. If it does, sea level will rise
between 4 and 6m, that's an awful lot of sea level rise. We need to
think about that.
MAXINE MCKEW: It doesn't sound as if you're at all sanguine. In the
way, if you like, we look at the last century and we did avoid the
great worry, a nuclear apocalypse. You're suggesting that in fact
almost regardless of what we do we're not going to avoid some of
these more dramatic consequences.
ALAN DUPONT: The climate change that I'm talking about that we're
almost certain is going to happen is built into the system. So even
if we turn off all the lights tomorrow and didn't drive any cars
that's built in for 100 years. So we're almost certain the atmosphere
is going to warm up two to three degrees, we know that, regardless of
what we do. Should we take measures to ameliorate the impact of that?
Yes. Can we slow down the rate of climate change? Yes, we can do a
lot to reduce the impact of this and spread it out over a longer
period of time, which gives us longer to adapt and adjust. It's not
just us humans, it's all the species on the plan that we depend on.
It's in our interests to do that, to slow down this climate change as
much as we can. If we don't do that, it will be even worse than we
know is going to happen now.
MAXINE MCKEW: Just to come to one of your most important
recommendations - that is, our intelligence community, the various
agency, should look at this whole issue as a top priority. I guess
the question is, does ONA or any other the others, do they have the
expertise they need to in fact do that?
ALAN DUPONT: They have some expertise but not enough. And I think
it's absolutely critical that the intelligence community and also
government as a whole starts to focus on this issue because climate
change affects everything. So if the National Security Committee of
Cabinet for example is worrying about East Timor or possible military
threats to Australia, why will they not start to think about climate
change as a potential security threat to Australia and the region
over the long term? We should be looking at those sorts of issues. We
need to think about what sort of people do the intelligence agencies
need to recruit to focus on this? What about our universities and our
broader education system? A lot of the effort going on to climate
change is too stove-piped. We have climate change scientists looking
at the science and economists looking at the economics. Why don't we
bring these people in this country and work together in a multi-
disciplinary way and do that in collaboration with our neighbours in
the region? Because this is going to affect all of us.
MAXINE MCKEW: Alan Dupont, for that and we will see if your message
gets through, thanks very much for joining us tonight.