Michael Pascoe: What is Albanese hiding? Maybe it’s the experts’ vision of the climate hell ahead

Where does Australia turn when the climate catastrophe hits?

Where does Australia turn when the climate catastrophe hits? Photo: TND/Getty

A good way to scare people is to suggest your chief security body has written something so frightening that you can’t possibly let anyone read anything about it.

Or maybe your top spooks have just produced something that would embarrass the government greatly, and therefore it really must stay hidden.

It’s more likely to be the latter, of course, but we don’t know, can’t know, when even the date the report was filed is secret. (Maybe the UFO carrying the aliens vetting the text crashed …)

Nature abhors a vacuum. When the government isn’t game to tell us anything about the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) report on the national security threats posed by climate change, it’s left to others to fill in the space.

Such information vacuums occur from time to time. Most memorably, there was that period when it wasn’t possible to know if then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison was a nutter. We eventually worked that one out though.

The ONI folk proclaim: “We provide Australia with a strategic advantage through our analytical insight, our intelligence community leadership and our focus on the future.”

That sounds impressive, but don’t get your hopes too high. The re-named Office of National Assessments hasn’t prevented our several security and intelligence blunders in its 46 years and is run by Mr Andrew Shearer, former adviser to prime ministers Howard and Abbott, Mr Morrison’s cabinet secretary and noted China hawk and Americanophile.

It has been suggested that the AUKUS submarines were Mr Shearer’s idea.

Too hot to handle

So, left to our own devices with a focus on the future, what might be too hot for the public to handle?

Well, it would be embarrassing if the ONI decided the government’s official line on climate change was rubbish, that everything won’t be OK, that we’re heading for more than a 2°C rise with the odd tipping point along the way delivering massive environmental damage, global food and water crises creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees and killing millions of people, never mind flora and fauna.

Such a scenario would make the Australian government’s easy-does-it, more-mines-and-wells, don’t-attempt-leadership, a-bit-better-than-the-Liberals carbon policy look, um, “unfortunate”, Minister.

A little context: Australian governments past and present are rather hesitant about seriously considering our future.

While we’ve had a Claytons defence review – a quickie knocked out on the back of a submarine sales brochure with the conclusions known before it started  – we haven’t bothered to consider a national security strategy to help frame our future, unlike many countries including our major allies.

Retired Major General Michael Smith strongly made the case in these pages for such a strategy, partly in light of the defence review’s shortcomings.

“Australia’s security challenges are headlined by the likelihood of war or serious conflict between the United States and China (and/or their proxies),” Major General Smith wrote.

“But our nation’s security is jeopardised further by nuclear proliferation, the likelihood of global economic recession or depression, protracted ecological threats impacted further by climate change, the continuing threat of terrorism, mass population displacement and movement caused by conflicts and ecological disasters, and the exponential growth in artificial intelligence (AI) in the absence of effective regulation, particularly to control lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).”

That’s a lot to think about. The super-secret ONI report was only tasked with one aspect, albeit the biggest one: climate change.

Several people have tried to fill the information gap created by the government around the ONI report.

David Spratt of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration told Crikey’s Maeve McGregor the only logical conclusion he could come up with is that the ONI directly contradicted the government’s line that China is the greatest security risk to Australia.

That doesn’t sound like Mr Shearer’s ONI to me, but it would be correct.

The biggest threat

Retired Major General Peter Dunn told The New Daily Australia was not “prepared mentally or psychologically” for the security impacts of climate catastrophe.

He wondered why the ONI report, “finished ages ago”, hadn’t been released.

“Dare I say because it contains some really gut-wrenching facts.”

One fact General Dunn highlighted – and perhaps the one most likely to occur to the ONI and frighten the government horses – is that Australia’s refugee policy is inadequate for handling the “uncontrollable flow” of people who will be fleeing the effects of climate change.

Preparing for risks requires people with imagination. Major insurance companies pay such people to sit around and imagine the worst things that could happen.

The CEO of QBE Insurance at the time of the 9/11 attacks told me the worst scenario the disaster planners had come up with for the company’s New York exposure was two 747s colliding over the city. The reality of the World Trade Centre attacks was worse.

I don’t know how imaginative the ONI types might be. I can imagine that, concentrating on the “national security” bit, the ONI report might include close-up detail such as the capability of our defence forces to operate at sustained high and humid temperatures. (Heat kills fit young people, too. Check this harrowing New Yorker report on what it does to the body.)

Put it there, partner. PM Anthony Albanese and India’s Narendra Modi shake on a new pact at the Bali G20 summit. Photo: AAP

What is the danger?

For the biggest picture, I wonder if they’d dare imagine climate catastrophe provoking a military invasion of Australia. If they did, they’d paint scenarios around the most likely country.

No, that wouldn’t be China. Even the Sydney Morning Herald Sinophobes don’t believe China would try to invade, only attack the US bases here.

China’s demographics are wrong for such an enterprise. The population is ageing and shrinking quite rapidly. By peak climate catastrophe around 2050, China’s population is expected to be down to 1.3 billion on its way to 800 million in 2100.

The drive for lebensraum down in the South Pacific isn’t there.

Look at demographics

Forecasting is a mug’s game but to the extent that it is possible, “demography is destiny”, as a French philosopher once said.

If the ONI is any good, if it has imagination, it would have to consider what climate catastrophe might do to the world’s most populous country with growing demographic pressures and already being stretched by the current level of climate disasters, a government that has slid from democracy to anocracy, effectively a single-party state that believes the country’s dominant religion is superior and therefore regards followers of other faiths as inferior, a country that has a gender imbalance that throws up excess young males frustrated by lack of opportunity.

That results in a scenario that would be extremely embarrassing for Anthony Albanese, fresh from idolising the increasingly dictatorial Narendra Modi as “the Boss”.

The United Nation’s medium variant forecast of India’s population is that it will surpass 1.5 billion by the end of this decade and continue to rise to 1.7 billion people in 2064.

India’s median age is 28. About one in five of all the people in the world aged under 25 live in India, according to Pew Research.

India’s baby gender imbalance has narrowed from about 111 boys per 100 girls in 2011 to 108 boys in the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey.

Some 9 million female births “went missing” between 2000 and 2019, reports Pew. There were still 410,000 “missing” baby girls in 2019.

Several million “excess” aspirational young males suffering chronic underemployment is a dangerous thing in any circumstances – the sort of thing that can drive extremist politics, the sort of thing that populist and religious fundamentalist politicians tend to channel to disastrous ends.

India’s bleak climate future

India is one of the countries with the bleakest climate future, its crucial rivers suffering from melting glaciers, monsoon abnormalities, heat waves and extreme floods devastating crops in a country whose population remains overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture.

As the climate crisis worsens, India is a country that could seek Lebensraum. It won’t find it in its immediate neighbours suffering similar population pressures and climate disasters.

And if populist politicians wanted to seek a scapegoat for the nation’s problems, there is that massive, largely-empty continent that is a world champion in producing fossil fuels, is one of the highest per-capita carbon consumers and has dragged the chain on international action.

It is not in Australia’s interests for India to become a bigger military power, but that is what the United States is promoting to contain China and that is what Australia is dutifully playing along with in the Quad.

India already has the world’s fourth-biggest military budget – $111 billion this financial year, up 13 per cent on last year, which was up 10 per cent on the year before.

Despite occasional skirmishes and a small 1962 war over their disputed Himalayan border, India and China are not meaningful competitors.

If you had to use imagination to consider national security threats from climate change, what the ONI is supposed to do, you could come up with such a scenario. The Australian Government would never want it made public.

But who needs the threat of war?

That most obvious ONI scenario is bad enough for now-traditional Australian fears – flotillas of desperate “boat people” overwhelming our security.

That’s when you start to include the climate-fragile hundreds of millions in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, never mind the small populations of Pacific Islands.

The Australian Government wouldn’t want that made public either.

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