International

Promoting climate action, poking China

A new defence report on climate change pulls no punches in outlining the environmental and security threats posed to New Zealand.  The document also offers a veiled poke at China’s influence efforts in the Pacific - which not everyone is happy with, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

At first glance, the regimented military mind and so-called environmental “tree-huggers” may seem unlikely bedfellows.

It was a contrast Defence Minister Ron Mark played on at the launch of a new, military-commissioned report on the threat posed by climate change, acknowledging some would consider it “a little strange, a little unusual”.

It may help that the environmentalist Mark has described himself as a “recycler from hell”, but he argued there was more to it than personal predilections.

“People lose sight of the fact that our Air Force operates in the air, our Navy operates in the water, out soldiers dig holes in the ground and live in them - some of us would argue there are few as connected with nature as the personnel in our Defence Force.”

New Zealand isn’t the first military to start thinking about rising temperatures and waters either, with the US Department of Defense releasing a study earlier this year on the threat that climate change poses to its military installations.

But while we may be a little late to the party, Defence Force chief Kevin Short said the new defence assessment was still an important advance on the military’s previous policies when it came to the climate.

“It wasn’t a specific area, a principle if you like, to make decisions - this gives a clear principled statement, user requirement if you want to use the military term, to actually put into the capabilities.”

“If I look at the tropical cyclone season which starts in October and sort of goes through to April, it’s kind of starting earlier, it’s finishing later and we’re getting more events that we have to respond to.”

The report is blunt when it comes to the threats, environmental and security, posed by increasingly violent weather in New Zealand and the wider Pacific: it describes climate change as “one of the greatest security challenges for New Zealand Defence in the coming decades”.

Shortages of water, land for crops, and the fish that are so valuable to Pacific economies would add strain to smaller nations which already struggle due to weak governance or corruption.

During a recent visit to New Zealand, global Red Cross head Peter Maurer spoke to Newsroom about a “perfect storm” linking climate change to the development of violence, as populations were displaced and dealt with disruptions to their communities and working routines - a concern echoed in the defence report.

With the increased risk of instability in the Pacific, and the more certain prospect of increasingly frequent natural disasters, the NZDF’s humanitarian efforts will also come under strain - something Short said was already happening.

“If I look at the tropical cyclone season which starts in October and sort of goes through to April, it’s kind of starting earlier, it’s finishing later and we’re getting more events that we have to respond to.”

While he said the military was able to plan around the issue for now, the report’s suggestion of more “concurrent” events seems likely to stretch them further - something Mark acknowledged would need to be dealt with in a “re-prioritisation” of resources and capability.

A veiled shot at China

But the report also contains a veiled shot at China - following in the vein of the defence policy statement released earlier this year - with a warning about countries using disaster assistance as a way to “increase influence and access” to the Pacific.

Mark was quick to insist the Government was “colourblind” when it came to climate, pointing to the joint Exercise Skytrain between China and New Zealand earlier this year that focused on humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

Short was also clear that New Zealand needed to work with, not force out, the “very capable” Asian superpower on climate change.

“They have capabilities way beyond what we have, they for instance have a hospital ship: what we do is make sure that hospital ship isn’t doing something in Vanuatu at the same time as we are helping in what we call a Tropic Major exercise.”

“When you are struck with a disaster, you are not sitting there and thinking, ‘Who is genuine and who is not, who is doing it for access and who is doing it because they really like us and want to help us?’"

But Rouben Azizian, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said the climate report - while positive overall - seemed a missed opportunity to work more closely with countries who were not among our traditional allies and partners.

“We do have some issues with China, but climate change in my opinion should be a unifying factor rather than a dividing factor - arguably we have more in common on climate change with China than with the United States under Donald Trump.”

Azizian said the success of the NZDF’s climate efforts in the Pacific, and the Government’s broader “Pacific reset”, would hinge in part on whether it was “inclusive and genuine, rather than divisive”.

“When you are struck with a disaster, you are not sitting there and thinking, ‘Who is genuine and who is not, who is doing it for access and who is doing it because they really like us and want to help us?’

“For Pacific nations it’s an existential problem, so they will accept help and support from everyone.”

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