The fall of Jakarta: climate change hits close to home

A wake up call for Australian foreign policy

Alia Huberman

PHOTO: "Abandoned" by Carol Mitchell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politics, Society and culture, International relations, Development | Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia

27 November 2019

The move of the Indonesian capital is an object lesson in climate change’s impacts on security in our region—and why Australia needs a grand strategy to deal with them, Alia Huberman writes.

In August, President Widodo confirmed what had long seemed impossible: Indonesia will become the first country to move its capital city because of climate change.

This is a pivotal moment for the Indonesian people and a pretty gloomy milestone for the world. But for an Australia that’s still trying to wish away climate change as a threat to our national security, it’s a wake-up call that hits uncomfortably close to home.

The plan, optimistically announced for completion within five years, will see the seat of government moved from Jakarta to a future-proofed new administrative capital, likely in the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Why now, and why so urgently? The answer is simple. Climate change threatens Jakarta in a way that is undeniable, and immediate. The Indonesian capital is sinking faster than any other city on earth—in some areas, 2.5m in the last 10 years.

Scientific modelling shows 95 per cent of its northern suburbs could be underwater by 2050. The city is also chronically vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, and predicted to be the third most cyclone-damaged urban centre in the world.

No country can afford to see its capital sunk or washed away.

The fall of Jakarta is the first example of what sea level rise and higher-intensity natural disasters will do to Australia’s strategic neighbourhood. But despite the evidence mounting on our geographic doorstep, we continue to avoid having the serious, structured conversation we urgently need.

There’s been plenty of talk recently about the need for a clear-eyed Australian grand strategy, ignited in particular by Hugh White’s bombshell return as Canberra’s most reliable conversation-starter. It’s increasingly clear that we need a tangible strategic concept: what Australia’s future threat landscape might look like, and what we want to be able to do about it.

More on this: A wave of water crises to hit Asia

But despite the need, climate change is missing from this discussion.

A growing chorus of whispers is building to the same refrain: Australia is located in the most disaster-prone region in the world. We know now that climate change will displace millions, increase the frequency of conflicts, and destabilise governments through flooding, drought, famine, and a host of other Biblical plagues. Australia’s national security establishment isn’t disputing the science – but it is kicking the can down the road.

Internal ADF notes have revealed senior leadership’s concerns about a lack of “overarching strategy” to deal with climate change. The country’s last Defence White Paper myopically framed the consequences as increasing demand for the ADF’s humanitarian and disaster relief operations. What little discussion there is tends to take the shape of about climate change refugees—although they’re an undeniable part of our future—with estimates as high as 100 million reaching Australian shores.

Jakarta is merely the tip of a fast-melting iceberg. The science is in: climate change will challenge Australia’s security more than any other threat keeping Canberra up at night. But no one seems willing to plan for it as seriously as we discuss our future with China, the US alliance, or cyber-terrorism.

The move of the capital reveals something else too: no-one understands the stakes more than the Indonesians. That’s an opportunity Australia needs to seize. When we talk about the need to deepen our partnership with Indonesia, or develop a joint forward-thinking strategy for regional security, we need to be engaging on these terms as well. Climate change needs to be #1 on the agenda.

Australia needs a new grand strategy for an unstable future. And it needs one that stops dodging the greatest threat we face. The sort of threat that brings down capital cities.

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