NATO must prioritize climate change as a security issue

Beyond immediate challenges of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO should consider how to prepare for a context in which climate impacts are becoming severe.

Expert comment
Published 27 June 2022 Updated 14 September 2022 3 minute READ

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and ongoing debates about how to strengthen defence and deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank will rightly dominate discussions and drive the Strategic Concept at the NATO summit in Madrid.

But it is also imperative the summit and the new Strategic Concept lay the groundwork for NATO’s sustained and long-term role in tackling climate change-induced security challenges. In 2021, NATO presented an ambition to become the leading organization in understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security.

It is expected to issue its first Climate Change and Security Progress Report in Madrid and it is crucial this maintains the same level of determination to prepare the alliance for climate-related instability.

Climate change threatens the strategic interests and security of nation states by its potential to exacerbate existing social, environmental, and economic issues and ultimately contribute to conflict.

Why climate change is a NATO issue

Climate change and natural disasters can act as ‘threat multipliers’ with security implications for NATO. Climate change impacts can undermine livelihoods, increase mass migration, and can act to weaken the governance and stability of states, particularly conflict-affected fragile states. In addition, as natural resources become scarcer, conflict over access to them is already increasing.

In 2020, more than 60 per cent of citizens in every NATO member state said they considered climate change to be a major threat to their country

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region risks being particularly impacted and is in Europe’s neighbourhood. Although recent NATO interventions in the region have been limited to operations in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq – each with a different mandate and with questionable degrees of success – further instability due to climate change on NATO’s southern flank could be the tipping point to develop a much-needed coherent strategy for supporting stabilization and peacebuilding efforts in the Sahel and beyond.

At the same time, Russia and China’s interests in the Arctic – enabled by melting ice caps due to global warming – present yet another front for conflict with NATO.

NATO’s military readiness and infrastructure is also at risk because extreme heat can endanger training exercises or missions abroad, and sea-level rises and extreme weather can have costly ramifications on military equipment and force deployment.

NATO’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Virginia has seen regular flooding which might impede its ability to carry out operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific. Such extreme weather events are projected to increase in frequency to 560 per year globally – or 1.5 per day – by 2030.

Equally, commitment to tackling climate-change induced security risks is important to domestic audiences in NATO countries. In 2020, more than 60 per cent of citizens in every NATO member state said they considered climate change to be a major threat to their country.

Conflict and climate impacts are intertwined

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows how conflict can threaten food and energy security and can lead to cascading impacts on international markets: it has impacted food security due to its effect on global supply chains creating rising food prices.

Ukraine and Russia supply approximately 30 per cent of global wheat demand and a failure to harvest wheat crops during the summer months is expected to lead to food shortages. Energy prices have also risen, partly due to sanctions against Russia, and have led to energy shocks given the reliance on Russian energy – Europe alone relies on Russia for about 40 per cent of its gas supply.

The war in Ukraine is also impacting the environment locally in Ukraine with the targeting of oil and gas storage facilities, and it is creating spill-over effects through displacement, food shortages, and a return to the use of coal.

Climate change threatens the strategic interests and security of nation states by its potential to exacerbate existing social, environmental, and economic issues and ultimately contribute to conflict

For those countries in the Middle East and Africa which are food-dependent on Russia and Ukraine, the war is contributing to the risk of famine – which may in turn lead to migration, unrest, or conflict and could have cascading impacts back into NATO countries.

How should NATO address climate-change induced security risks?

Climate-change induced security risks expose many of the same interdependencies within the international system that the invasion of Ukraine and COVID-19 laid bare and must be tackled.

NATO has an opportunity to help remind the world of the importance of climate action at a time when international attention is focused on the other impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

One suggestion could be that NATO might raise the profile of its Emerging Security Challenges Department, and specifically its Climate and Energy Security Section within that, for example by appointing a climate champion who can introduce initiatives to tackle climate and security challenges.

Such initiatives might focus on prevention and preparedness, and the section could introduce initiatives to build resilience against climate impacts and create more sustainable practices.

These practices might include joint action on climate modelling and climate risk assessments to improve early warning systems, and adapting infrastructure, equipment, vehicles, uniforms, and weaponry to become greener and more resilient, such as reducing militaries’ dependence on fossil fuels.

NATO can also help address the military emissions gap by carrying out an annual assessment of emissions associated with military operations in member countries. The alliance can improve cooperation with partners to scale up tested novel approaches to reduce energy consumption in military equipment and installations, such as Denmark’s Defence Green Action Plan or the United Nations (UN) Peacebuilding Unit’s drive to adopt renewable energy in operations.

NATO must prioritize climate change as a security issue 2nd part

Against this backdrop of interconnected climate insecurities, NATO should project this notion of resilience beyond alliance territory and strengthen the adaptive capacities of vulnerable nations most affected by near-term climate impacts.

Ultimately, a concern that focusing on climate-change induced security risks will take resources and attention away from other pressing security risks is a false dichotomy. The invasion of Ukraine has exposed the systemic vulnerabilities in climate, security, international cooperation, and the global economy for resources.

The invasion of Ukraine rightly fills NATO’s field of vision right now. However, climate change-induced security issues are happening in real time and must not be lost sight of in discussions at the Summit. Going forward, knowing the risks and the likely impact, NATO would be well-advised to raise climate change-induced security risks on its agenda.