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Climate change presents multiple challenges for NZDF

Line of Defence Magazine, Autumn 2018

Tropical Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc on Fiji in 2016.Tropical Cyclone Winston wreaked havoc on Fiji in 2016.


Dr Egemen Bezci, Visiting Scholar at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, argues that addressing climate change poses massive challenges for the NZDF, not least climate change’s threat-multiplier effect.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern identified climate change as a top priority for her government’s foreign and security policy agenda during her 27 February New Zealand Institute for International Affairs speech.

The coalition government’s determination to address climate change is likely to present two major challenges to the New Zealand Defence Force: (i) how to deal with changing civil-military relations; and (ii) how to address the threat-multiplier effect of climate change.


Short-sighted on the long-term

When elected politicians aim to address a problem requiring a long-term commitment, they face a fundamental restriction because of the length of their electoral term. Climate change is a long-term policy problem that will require policy implementation over several generations.

This creates an intertemporal challenge for politicians who aim to tackle the problem as the cost of climate change policy raises costs for the current electorate and takes resources away from projects valuable to stakeholders and elected officials.

Alan Jacobs and J Scott Matthews identify in their research that “citizens’ bias in favour of short-term policy benefits arises in part because they do not find the promise of long-delayed policy rewards to be credible.” The problem of mismatch between electoral terms and time-spans for long-term policy implementation creates challenges for even the most benevolent politician.

It is still unknown whether the Beehive will be able to allocate the substantial resources the NZDF needs for tackling the security threats of climate change. It is possible short-time electoral politics will triumph.

If resourcing to the NZDF suffers because of short-term politicking, but a precedent is set for the NZDF to deal with climate change-related security issues, this will likely to create turbulence in New Zealand’s civil-military relations.


Responding to more disasters

Pacific nations are particularly prone to natural disasters. New Zealand’s 2016 Defence White Paper accordingly highlights the NZDF’s responsibilities in the wake of “environmental challenges” in the Pacific region.

Climate change triggers extreme events on the scale of natural disasters. As Dr Chad Briggs of Air University (USAF) points out, “effective risk assessments and planning will require understanding of how climate change will affect natural disasters and disaster response, and how hazards may be more extreme or unique from past experiences.”

Providing relief missions will require increased rapid deployment capabilities and an effective coordination with local authorities and other bodies such as the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

Although the NZDF’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief guidelines are already comprehensive, future pressure on the coordination of these missions may prove overwhelming due to a climate change-induced rise in the frequency of natural disasters.


Climate change consequences

The NZDF will also need to tackle the threat-multiplier effects of climate change. A text book example of such an effect was seen in the instability afflicting the Middle East before and after the Arab Spring due to years of drought and food insecurity.

Violent conflicts are more likely when food security lowers, which aggravates social grievances and increases recruitment opportunities for illicit groups such as criminal or terror networks. Criminal networks in the Pacific are already a concern for New Zealand, and climate change will likely increase their outreach and scope. The NZDF will need to help build its Pacific neighbours’ capacities to ensure regional security is not undermined.

Climate change is already a national security concern for numerous countries globally. Some, like Norway, as well as collective security organisations like NATO, are already dedicating substantial resources to dealing with this threat. As our government attempts to achieve a comprehensive and realistic strategic outlook, the NZDF will face new challenges and best not be caught unprepared. 


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