NATO and the Climate Change Challenge
The transatlantic alliance needs to set the narrative and define its role when it comes to tackling the security challenges posed by climate change.
Climate change has become the central challenge facing humanity. The effects of increasing global warming—melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and, above all, an increase in extreme weather events—are now being felt around the world. Worse, the goal set in the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius until the end of this century has proven elusive. The latest estimates assume a temperature rise of about twice that much. This could lead to a rise in sea level of up to one meter by 2100. Those who still believe that climate change is a hoax will soon realize that they were terribly wrong. Climate change will fundamentally re-draw the map: geographically, economically, politically, and in terms of security.
The security implications of global warming could be enormous. They include natural disasters triggered by extreme weather events, such as famines or floods, which endanger the political and economic stability, particularly of poorer states. Droughts or the decline in arable land could lead to bad harvests and higher food prices. Rising sea levels and the simultaneous desertification of large areas of land could trigger migration flows.
Disputes over inhabitable land or drinking water could erupt into military conflict. The melting ice caps at the North Pole are creating new sea routes and thus opening up new economic opportunities, but they could also become a new arena of political, economic, and military competition. For all these reasons, many governments have declared climate change a matter of national security. A study by the Davos World Economic Forum listed “extreme weather” and “climate failure” among the most serious risks—far ahead of cyberattacks and weapons of mass destruction.
Connecting Climate and Security
Climate change is not only a threat multiplier. It will also determine where and how NATO forces will have to operate. A strategic environment that is altered by a changing climate is already posing considerable military-operational challenges. There is no shortage of examples. The changing salinity of the water in the Gulf of Aden has caused turbines of frigates to fail. For many years, NATO forces in Afghanistan had been struggling with high temperatures that resulted in a considerable loss of take-off performance and payload of aircraft. The increase in sandstorms also made military flights more and more difficult. In Iraq, soldiers have to endure temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or higher. Rising sea levels are endangering naval bases. Even military installations that are inland are not immune to climate change. The amount of damage to military installations caused by extreme weather events is steadily increasing.
NATO's 2010 Strategic Concept was the first to contain a brief reference to the connection between climate and security, yet it did not galvanize the allies into taking collective action. They hesitated to get involved in a subject that could degenerate into a controversial discussion about national climate and energy policies, or touch upon politically sensitive regions, such as the High North.
One decade later, with climate change having become a key security issue, NATO allies have realized that indifference is no longer an option. Accordingly, at the NATO Summit in June 2021, the allies adopted a “Climate Change and Security Action Plan.” The plan not only listed the potentially dramatic security implications of climate change, but also defined an ambitious agenda for the alliance, including a reduction of greenhouse gases generated by military activities.
NATO's future role in addressing climate change starts with a comprehensive assessment of the impact of global warming on NATO's strategic environment as well as on its operations. Moreover, the alliance is to include the effects of climate change in its risk analyses and in its “resilience” assessments of individual allies and partner countries. NATO's science program, which for decades has supported research on climate and environmental security, will be geared even more toward climate issues.
NATO will also integrate climate issues into the entire spectrum of its activities. This includes, for example, defense planning, civil emergency planning, standardization, military exercises, and disaster relief. The allies’ procurement policy is supposed to reflect the military requirements for operations in a transformed strategic environment. The allies have also stated their intention to examine the impact of climate change on NATO's deterrence and defense capabilities, including on military mobility and the provision of reinforcements.
Dialogue with Partners
NATO will also seek dialogue with other institutions. This applies in particular to the United Nations and the European Union, which have taken the lead in combating climate change and whose decisions influence NATO's future policies, at least indirectly. Dialogue and cooperation with partner countries, many of whom are currently more affected by climate change than most allies, is to be intensified as well.
In the past, NATO’s science program supported climate-related projects in partner countries, for example the early warning of floods in Ukraine or the prevention of desertification in Egypt. Some partner countries are also interested in the allies' experience with increasing energy efficiency in their armed forces. NATO also wants to engage with civil society. A major annual event on climate change and security is planned to take place for the first time in 2022.
The most ambitious dimension of NATO’s new role in climate security is the objective to contribute to the mitigation of climate change. To this end, NATO will first develop the analytical basis for measuring greenhouse gas emissions from military activities and installations. This would allow for a comparison of national military emissions, which in turn should help the allies to formulate—voluntary—emission reduction targets. At the same time, the collection of comparable data on military energy consumption could have a positive impact on future national innovation and investment decisions in terms of developing more energy-efficient armed forces.
Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the allies’ armed forces inevitably raises the question of feasibility. It is obvious that maintaining NATO’s military competence must always have priority. Hence, reducing emissions, for example by gradually moving away from fossil fuels, only makes sense if it does not impair the operational effectiveness of the armed forces or—better still—increases it. Experiments conducted within the forces of many NATO countries show that reducing emissions and increasing military performance are not necessarily contradictory. Just as today’s cars are cleaner and yet more powerful than previous models, military equipment can be made “greener” without sacrificing combat power.
For example, the navies of Italy and the United States have jointly tested biofuels, which no longer compete with food production (e.g., rapeseed). New ship turbines use less fuel and are cleaner. The armed forces of some NATO nations are also experimenting with biofuel additives, hydrogen fuel cells, electric vehicles, and improvements in aerodynamics. NATO is supporting a project to reduce the diesel consumption in remote military bases by adding wind and solar into the mix. Many of these experiments were initiated in order to save expensive fuel or ease the logistical burden rather than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, since these technological innovations will ultimately lead to a tangible reduction in CO2 emissions, they have both military and political significance.
With its Action Plan, NATO has set itself ambitious goals. Achieving them, however, requires that several conditions be met. The first is the management of expectations, notably regarding mitigation. Military equipment requires many years of development before it enters into service, and then remains in use for several decades. New, energy-saving technologies are no exception. They have to be developed, purchased, integrated into existing national forces, and they have to be made interoperable with the equipment of other allies.
Hence, for a considerable period of time, armed forces will remain large consumers of fossil fuels. It is therefore essential to avoid the stigmatization of armed forces as contributors to climate change. For example, accusing the US armed forces of emitting more greenhouse gases than Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal together misses the mark. Defining armed forces as a climate risk while ignoring their existential importance for national and collective defense would be grossly negligent. Military security and climate security must not be pitted against each other.
In the longer term, Allies will also need to re-examine NATO's future role in humanitarian operations. Already today, the armed forces of many countries play an important role as “first responders” in natural disasters. They secure the disaster area and provide food and medicine to the victims. NATO is no stranger to humanitarian missions: after a severe earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, NATO airlifted over 3,500 tons of supplies to the crisis area. At the time, these operations were conducted without any conceptual underpinning or references to climate security.
However, if one assumes that the number of climate-related humanitarian missions will increase, this new reality will have to be reflected in new requirements for NATO countries' operational concepts, training, and equipment. Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted the alliance to re-focus on its core task of collective defense, allies will have to reconcile these different requirements.
Fulfilling NATO’s Core Tasks
Finally, there is also the challenge of NATO's narrative. If polls show that the younger generation in particular considers climate change as the greatest security threat, it is important for NATO to demonstrate that it takes these concerns seriously. It is equally important for NATO's agenda to include mitigation measures, irrespective of how challenging these may be. Failing to commit to reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions would have made NATO’s message ring hollow and provoked criticism that it was adhering to double standards.
However, NATO's primary mission remains securing peace and stability, whether through deterrence, collective defense, or crisis management. Global warming may change the way in which these tasks are fulfilled, but it does not change their fundamental importance. To fulfil its core tasks, NATO needs to preserve its military competence. This does not allow for compromises merely for the sake of getting itself a “greener” image.
NATO has set itself the goal of becoming the “leading international organization” on the issue of the security implications of climate change and the necessary adaptation measures. This is an ambitious goal. It requires a narrative that identifies climate change as a major security challenge and credibly defines NATO’s role, yet without raising false expectations. Against the backdrop of an increasingly alarmist international climate debate, this could become a difficult balancing act.
NATO’s next Strategic Concept, however, which is to be unveiled at the Madrid Summit in June 2022, will be spared the fate of its 2010 predecessor. Back then, the security risks of climate change were mentioned, yet the allies did not take action. By contrast, this time around words and deeds will match.
Michael Rühle is head of Hybrid Challenges and Energy Security Section, Emerging Security Challenges Division, NATO. The author is expressing his personal views.