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NATO in a climate of change

"View of the room" at the NATO Leaders' Meeting in London, United Kingdom, 3-4 December 2019. Photo: NATO.
"View of the room" at the NATO Leaders' Meeting in London, United Kingdom, 3-4 December 2019. Photo: NATO.

During last year's Munich Security Conference, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about facing an increasingly more uncertain and unpredictable security environment. Speaking from the perspective of NATO, he argued that although allies disagree on certain issues, such as climate change, it is crucial to stand together. Regardless of whether Stoltenberg considers climate change to be part of this changing environment or not, NATO is paying the issue increasing attention. To coincide with this year's Munich Security Conference, this blog explores NATO's current position in the growing debate on climate change and related risks.

Innovating the alliance

In December 2019, the leaders of NATO's 29 member states gathered in the alliance's inaugural home, London, to commemorate its 70th anniversary. In a time of high-profile disputes and controversies, the meeting gave NATO members the chance to reflect on coming challenges and opportunities. By celebrating previous achievements and concentrating on setting new horizons, NATO attempted to demonstrate the alliance's enduring relevance in a changing world.

As early as when Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the meeting, in early 2019, he stressed that NATO must develop in order 'to keep its population of almost one billion people safe'. This message was picked up as the main theme at NATO Engages: Innovating the Alliance, a public diplomacy event held on the eve of the leaders' meeting. At the town-hall-style meeting, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace claimed that NATO has always risen to whatever challenges it has faced. The alliance's continuous adaptability has accordingly made it the 'greatest defensive alliance the world has ever seen' and to keep with its 'best traditions', NATO must continue to rise against pending challenges; one of which is climate change.

Climate security today in NATO

Environmental change has been on NATO's agenda since the establishment of the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society in 1969. The focus of the committee was initially on the changing physical conditions under which armed forces operate and on reducing environmentally harmful consequences. More recently, the alliance has recognized the adverse effects of climate change on international security. In 2010, climate change was institutionalized in NATO through the Strategic Concept for the Defense and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The concept describes how environmental and climate change will shape the future security environment and have significant implications for the alliance's planning and operations. In 2014, the Wales Summit Declaration identified 'climate change, water scarcity and increasing energy needs' as future disruptors of security. Shortly afterward, the Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing climate change as a significant threat multiplier, affirming the need to improve resilience. There is a growing willingness in NATO to discuss and explore responses to climate-related dangers, but how and in which capacity the alliance will act remains unclear.

Over the past 20 years, intergovernmental organizations—like the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—have explored the security consequences of climate change and engaged in climate security governance. Similarly, defence organizations—particularly in the United States—have purposefully communicated the effects of climate change and developed strategies for handling its security implications. Despite acknowledging the adverse effects of climate change, NATO has not explicitly taken part in these debates. In the US, the relationship between climate change and security is primarily understood in terms of territorial danger whereas debates and deliberations in Germany focus on individuals and more constitutive causes of harm. In Turkey, on the other hand, climate change is generally not addressed in security discussions. Evidently, understandings of how climate change and security are connected, including how climate-related effects compare to other risks, vary within the organization.

Likewise, initiatives and strategies on climate-related security risks have usually been implemented at the state level. Norway has strengthened its operational capacity in the Arctic, Spain has established a Military Emergencies Unit to provide disaster relief and the UK has set quantitative goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by the Ministry of Defence and military services. When prompted about climate change at NATO Engages, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg stressed the importance of mitigation and said that the alliance should 'give rise to a little bit more discussion on how important it is to stop climate change'. In contrast, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace talked, at the same conference, about the need for NATO to adapt to climate change. NATO is an organization based on consensus, meaning that its agenda echoes what its member states can agree upon. These varying perspectives from member state officials indicate that NATO neither speaks with a common voice nor acts in a coordinated manner on climate-related matters, which provides some explanation for why the concept remains unresolved in NATO.

The coming decades

Climate change is shaping a security environment that demands new ideas and responses. It is difficult to state which distinct policies NATO will or should pursue, but it is clear the alliance, like all organizations, needs to assess and adapt its role in the face of climate change. This could be facilitated by collaboration with other actors and existing partners, such as the United Nations and the EU, which per the London Declaration will be further prioritized in the future. A clarification of NATO's approach to climate security would also simplify the potential integration of a climate dimension into existing functions. This is already conceivable in international disaster response, a field in which NATO is a significant actor, and in multilateral peace operations.

The member states' varying approaches to the relationship between climate change and security have made it difficult for NATO to reach consensus on the matter. Although climate-related security risks appear different from conventional threats to state and international security, their implications are similar and relate to the same factor described as the alliance's unifying and consolidating force. When asked about cooperation at NATO Engages, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that it is not strange that 29 allies with different backgrounds and interests disagree on things, but then added that 'despite these difference, we have always been able to unite around our core task: to protect and defend each other'. If this logic holds true, NATO members should be able to unite around the cause of protection from the dangerous effects of climate change and their impact on international security. Additionally, NATO's emphasis on collective security, reaffirmed in the 2010 Strategic Concept, makes it difficult for the alliance to reject climate-related security risks much longer.

Ten years ago, NATO recognized that 'the modern security environment contains a broad and evolving set of challenges'. Last year, NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary as an actor of stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and its enduring reputation as an influential alliance. If NATO is to continue contributing to a 'safer world' for decades to come, as is its intention, it also has to develop distinct approaches to the increasingly noticeable challenges of climate change. 


Rickard Söder is an Associate Researcher at SIPRI.