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The Aukus deal is a crime against the world’s climate future. It didn’t have to be like this | Jeff Sparrow

The Aukus deal is a crime against the world’s climate future. It didn’t have to be like this | Jeff Sparrow

Under the terms of the government’s nuclear submarine purchase, the first Australian-built Aukus class vessels come into service in the early 2040s. What else might be happening then?

According to the IPCC, at current rates, the planet will have warmed more than 1.5C above its pre-industrial state. In fact, many scientists believe temperatures could smash the 1.5C barrier as soon as 2030 or 2035 – that is, around about when Australia receives the first of its Virginia-class nuclear subs.

Warming on that scale means extreme weather becoming common. It means disasters like the 2019/20 bushfire season or the 2022 floods taking place not once in a century, but every year or so. It means drought and heatwaves disrupting food production, it means rising seas inundating the land, and it means millions of people fleeing regions suddenly rendered uninhabitable.

When you think about what the Australian people might require under such ghastly conditions, “nuclear submarines” do not top the list.

Back in 2019, Scott Morrison responded to a Greta Thunberg speech by saying that he didn’t want children to feel “needless anxiety” about global warming. That bizarre insouciance about climate science still pervades the national security establishment, even as the Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s “Red alert” panellists demand a “psychological shift” to ready Australians for a major war.

The submarine enthusiasts don’t care that the geostrategic environment for which their vessels are designed won’t exist as ecological collapse reshapes world politics. Rather, they consider the eye-popping sums associated with Aukus (“the biggest transfer of wealth from Australia to another country in its history”) as an immediate down payment on the US alliance, integrating Australia into the forces propping up declining American hegemony in the Asia Pacific.

Yet the rest of us should think long and hard about what that means.

With this deal, Anthony Albanese has now pledged vastly more money for hi-tech weaponry than Australia’s ever spent on preventing global warming. The $368bn allocated to nuclear submarines that may or may not ever arrive could, for example, have delivered a renewable energy grid, not once, nor twice but four times over.

Yet, instead of a zero carbon energy system, we’ve acquired a gigantic bill, one that will almost inevitably climb – the Australian military’s acquisitions often run billions of dollars over budget.

No future government will dare abandon the Morrison/Albanese commitment. On the contrary, every politician will invoke submarines to justify underfunding environmental and social programs. Already, Peter Dutton suggests buttressing Aukus with cuts to the NDIS – a small taste of what’s to come.

It didn’t have to be like this.

“For the first time in the modern era,” notes the Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick, “the left of the Left [in the ALP] controls power at the national level.” Yet Labor has persisted with its “small target” strategy on emissions, so far refusing to ban new fossil fuel developments despite the increasingly desperate pleas from António Guterres and Fatih Birol.

The “left of the Left” has expended its political capital not on a transformational climate policy but on a deal conceived by, of all people, Scott Morrison, a military expansion that not so long ago even the right of the Liberal party would have considered a khaki fever dream.

Let’s be real: Aukus makes the already huge task of decarbonisation far, far more difficult. If we were to consider the world’s militaries as a single country, their combined carbon footprint constitutes the fourth largest national contribution in the world.

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An arms race in the Asia Pacific and beyond will enrich the defence companies contributing to funding the Australian Strategic Policy Institute but it will derail the international cooperation necessary to cut emissions, as all the main powers throw resources into their own polluting fleets.

An actual conflict would be infinitely worse. A Sino-US war would mean a world-historic catastrophe, both because of its likely escalation to a nuclear exchange, but also because it would lock in an environmental future immeasurably bleaker than the already grim projections of the IPCC.

The fighting in Ukraine has already resulted in vast amounts of greenhouse gases. What do you suppose two clashing superpowers would do?

That’s why the Age/Sydney Morning Herald Red Alert series was so extraordinarily irresponsible. If war is really as imminent as these “experts” claim, we don’t need conscription or atomic weaponry or other blithely mentioned nostrums.

We need, rather, to redouble efforts for peace, simply because a conflict between nuclear powers would seal our environmental death warrant. No one should have illusions about Chinese dictators and their regime. But Iraq and Afghanistan provide an awful warning that military assaults on authoritarian regimes do not culminate in democracy and freedom, but instead intensify the misery inflicted upon ordinary people.

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower spelled out what the first cold war race signified, saying, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

We know, with a level approaching certainty, that climate change is coming. So how else can we think about Australian’s unprecedented new arms expenditure other than as an awful crime against the future?

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