Last year, the government tasked the Office of National Intelligence with assessing the security risks posed by worsening climate change. The ONI finished their report, handed it over, and now the government won’t release it.
The report is being considered by the government as so impactful that they can’t even reveal the date that it was completed. It is thought to pertain to the fact that increasingly extreme weather is expected to lead to food shortages and the mass displacement of people.
Since April, military leaders have been calling on the government to release the details of the findings, with Former Australian Defence Force Chief Chris Barrie saying at the time that Australians have a right to know what is coming.
“The Australian public deserve to know the full range of security threats our nation faces — particularly those posed by worsening climate change,” Admiral Barrie said.
“The practice of Australia’s allies has been to release such assessments. With other security threats, Australian governments have been transparent, making a point of sharing with the community their knowledge to gain support for action; for example cyber security, COVID, North Korea and more.
“But the same rationale has not been applied to the security threat of climate change, which is a far greater risk.”
At the start of the month, the Prime Minister confirmed that he has no current plans to release the report, stating that “There is already considerable material available in the public domain discussing national security threats from climate change.”
His response has drawn criticism from politicians including independents David Pocock and David Shoebridge, both of whom proposed a Senate motion in order to force the government to produce the documents. Both major parties however combined to block the motion on 10 August.
Shoebridge said it was “bizarre that the government won’t even reveal the date the climate risk assessment was completed,” and complained about secrecy in Parliament.
“When you can’t even get the date of a high-profile, publicly acknowledged report then you know that something’s gone wrong with the cult of secrecy in Canberra,” the NSW senator has said.
The conducting of the report was part of a plan Australia submitted to the UN outlining their new 2030 emissions targets. It was designed to be the basis for future national security policy in relation to climate risks. How bad could the report possibly be that the government is now remaining tight-lipped as to its contents? Here’s what we know.
What Could the Secret Climate Report Say?
When Albanese commissioned the report, in June of last year, he tasked Australia’s most senior intelligence chief, Andrew Shearer, to lead the review. ONI, being an internationally focused agency, is likely to have been outward-facing in its assessment of risk. It’s possible that what the review says would be diplomatically contentious and risk inflaming local political issues in the Pacific.
The report is likely to go deep into the granular issues at hand. Albanese has already previously stated that climate action is now central to Australia’s diplomatic and national security strategy. This is hardly surprising, given that previous international reports have found that over 70% of countries, by 2018, explicitly consider climate change a national security issue.
Australia is currently in a standoff with our Pacific Island neighbours over a bid to host COP31. Countries like Tuvalu, Fiji, and the Marshall Islands are the most prone to rising sea levels. Australia wants to co-host the UN gathering on climate change but these nations have stated that they will likely only give their support for the bid if Australia ends fossil fuel expansion. It’s possible that the ONI report, assessing the risks to Pacific island nations, could make this conversation even more awkward.
In an effort to drum up attention to the ONI report, the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration think tank has summarised what it sees as the potential threats and impacts of the climate crisis in a note for MPs.
The think tank states that the ONI report is “likely to have said that the world is dangerously off track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the risks are compounding and the impacts will be devastating in the coming decades”.
“In the Asia-Pacific region, states will fail and climate impacts will drive political instability, greater national insecurity and forced migration, and fuel conflict,” the paper says.
“There will likely be a further retreat to authoritarian and hyper-nationalist politics, the diminution of instruments of regional cooperation, and increased risks of regional conflict, including over shared water resources from the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, encompassing India, Pakistan, China and south-east Asian nations.”
Breakthrough researcher David Spratt has said that projections are tricky as the impacts of climate change are likely to “compound and cascade” in a non-linear way. He points to the Arab Spring uprising and the Syrian Civil War, which started, in part, because of drought in the region.
If the report does pertain to international risks, it’s possible that it has fairly serious words on the response Australia would be forced to undertake once mass climate migration becomes a problem.
On the other hand, it could make Labor’s position on expanding fossil fuel production even more precarious. The Greens, in petitioning the government to release the report, have said that they are hiding the document for political reasons.
“Labor is refusing to confront the scale of the climate crisis, keeping secret a report that would likely deliver a body blow to new coal and gas mines,” Greens Leader Adam Bandt said.
Will We Ever Get to Read the Secret Climate Report?
Albanese has said that the government is still considering its response to the ONI report and that, for now, the content of it is classified.
In contrast to the ONI report, the Defence Department conducted its own review, commissioned at the same time, which the government released as an unclassified 116-page document. That review warned that climate change is likely to significantly increase the risk of conflict in the region.
In responding to the Defence review, Albanese accepted the recommendation that the Australian Defence Force shift from disaster response roles and focus on increasing regional security risk. In their place, the Commonwealth is looking to expand its “civilian capacity.” Essentially, a semi-professional stand-by workforce is going to be created to respond to natural disasters.
The review also predicts that the ADF will move from humanitarian missions in the region towards stabilisation and conflict prevention work. This is thought to be particularly true for places like Indonesia and countries to the north which are rapidly losing coastline thanks to climate change.
It seems therefore that, if the Australian public is allowed to read information this shocking, the ONI review could be much worse. However, military experts have cautioned the government that Australians “are adults” and can handle the findings.
“I expect it might contain things that are a bit scary, but we’re adults and we are up for it,” Barrie said. “This is about transparency and keeping people informed.”
“It’s a much bigger threat to our national security than a potential fight with China or some other conflagration. Only a nuclear war could be more catastrophic.”
Barrie has argued that the government is completely disconnected from the reality of climate risk and is failing to act in a way that its seriousness demands.
By contrast, President Joe Biden released a similar report in 2021 in which the US intelligence community concluded that climate change could lead to the collapse of numerous nations. By 2050, the US estimates that 143 million people will be driven from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia due to the climate. Australia, it seems, is not prepared to deliver such striking news to its own people.
As for whether we’ll ever see the report, that question remains. It’s possible that the renewed pressure could force the government to publish an unclassified version. Albanese, however, remains steadfast.
“We make no apologies for not releasing national security advice, which, appropriately, goes to the national security committee,” he has said.
“That is a position that we have had for a long period of time, and that will remain the position.”