The HMNZS Wellington, pictured off the Antarctic coastline, is among the New Zealand military vessels which may be pressed into action more often as a result of climate change. Photo: NZDF.

A new report from the New Zealand military has described climate change as “one of the greatest security challenges” facing the country in the coming decades, highlighting the risk of violent conflict as waters rise in the Pacific.

The document says the military should prepare for the strain of a greater number of humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations, while fishing vessels may move into new areas – including New Zealand’s search and rescue area – as they hunt for displaced fish.

The report, titled The Climate Crisis: Defence Readiness and Responsibilities, was produced by the NZ Defence Force and Ministry of Defence following eight months of research and discussions in New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The Government has put an increased focus on the ties between the environment and the military’s work: in an interview with Newsroom shortly after taking office, Defence Minister Ron Mark said he wanted to give more thought to the Defence Force’s role in “the war on climate change”.

“With global warming and climate change, there are consequences to that, security risks that will arise from climate change … yes, war-fighting and a projection of military capability is fundamental, but there’s a far bigger picture out there right now of the threats we face as human beings, as a nation of people who care about others,” Mark said.

Water shortages, food insecurity, and impacts to public health are among the effects of climate change, “further challenging areas with limited resources or weak governance”.

The defence report follows in that vein, describing climate change as “one of the greatest security challenges for New Zealand Defence in the coming decades”.

The links between climate change and conflict are “indirect but demonstrable”, it says, adding: “When the effects of climate change intersect with a complex array of environmental and social issues, they can be significant contributors to both low-level and more violent conflict.”

The report says the risk of concurrent and more extreme weather events is increasing, with some of the largest temperature changes set to occur between New Zealand and the equator.

“Local communities and response agencies alike should prepare for larger-scale disasters, shorter recovery periods between disasters, and the possibility of communities’ reduced resilience.”

Water shortages, food insecurity, and impacts to public health are among the effects of climate change, “further challenging areas with limited resources or weak governance”.

An excerpt from the NZDF/Ministry of Defence climate change report. Photo: NZDF/MOD.

Despite countries in the Pacific Islands accounting for only 0.04 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the report says they are disproportionately affected, with coral bleaching, shrinking fish stocks and salt accumulations in the soil among the environmental impacts with economic and social consequences.

“When combined with overfishing, changing fish migration patterns will see more vessels fishing in new areas including international waters and waters in New Zealand’s expansive search and rescue area.”

A reduction in freshwater and suitable land for agriculture is negatively affecting community health, and could cause added stress to those in “post-conflict environments”, such as Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

The report says communities have already been split up for relocation and moved to areas with different cultures without any consultation, or overcrowded communities.

“In such cases, there have been reports of low-level conflict over land—sometimes deadly—and reports of increased levels of violence, including against women and children.”

Climate change as an influence-building tool?

The report says there is a “clear requirement” to advance national and international discussions on the links between climate change and security, which have been more often discussed in relation to the Middle East and Africa rather than the Pacific.

Citing “global disagreements” on climate change, such as the Paris agreement, it suggests assistance on disaster adaptation, mitigation and response could be a way to “increase influence and access”.

“Working with Pacific Island countries on climate change, including in the security sphere, is an opportunity to learn lessons from each other while further strengthening strategic partnerships.”

That influence-building would not come without a cost: the report warns that New Zealand could face increasingly concurrent operational commitments, which could stretch resources and reduce readiness for other requirements.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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