NATO’s new Strategic Concept, approved in June 2022, suggests the Alliance wants to be a significant player when it comes to tackling climate change, especially because of its security implications. But is NATO the right organization for taking a leading role? I argue that it is only to a very limited extent. While NATO is right to integrate the impact of climate change into its analysis of security threats, it would be better off acting as a platform for consultation and coordination among allies. As such, NATO could help to create common targets and hold member states accountable while ensuring that their involvement in the international climate response does not infringe on NATO’s primary purpose: transatlantic security and defense.
On June 29, 2022, at the Madrid Summit, NATO members adopted a new Strategic Concept spelling out their perspectives on the current strategic environment. On the surface, the new document pays far greater attention to climate change, since NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept mentioned climate change just once. While the 2022 Strategic Concept does not describe a coherent approach to climate change, it does insert climate-change related concerns and goals seven times across the document’s 49 main points.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg formulated three overarching climate tasks: understand the link between security and climate change, adapt to climate change, and mitigate its impact. While commitment and ability are one side of the coin, being the best positioned actor for a task is another. So, what role does NATO want to play within these three overarching climate tasks, and is NATO the right body to do so?
NATO’s Aim to Understand the Security-Climate Change Nexus
The standout commitment in NATO’s strategic concept, insofar as climate, is point 46, denoting that NATO should become the leading international organization in understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security. As a threat multiplier, climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, food shortages, and is likely to accelerate instability and socioeconomic inequality which breed conflict. Extreme weather conditions and disasters like the ravaging heatwaves in Europe last summer will threaten individual security. More extreme temperatures and environmental change will also challenge NATO’s capabilities.
As the world’s largest security alliance, NATO should certainly include climate change in its strategic and operational planning to better ensure individual and collective security. NATO has started institutionalizing dialogue and research on the climate-security nexus. In June, NATO launched the first annual High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change and Security, gathering NATO allies, partners, and other stakeholders to facilitate consultations and address security impacts. NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program, assembling scientists from Allied and partner countries, has long sponsored related research, workshops, and dialogues for policymakers. Hence, NATO is the right body to foster a deeper understanding of the climate-security nexus, both because it has the resources and the platform, and it is the primary actor that should put such knowledge to use.
Adapting the Military Capabilities and Infrastructure
With the impact of climate change becoming more pronounced, experts have increasingly appealed to policymakers to add adaptation to their mitigation efforts. If NATO fails to adapt to climate change, it will impair its long-term capability to respond to security threats. NATO acknowledges this in its Strategic Concept by focusing on one form of climate adaptation: the adaptation of equipment, personnel, and infrastructure.
Rising sea levels and storm surges will require relocating ports and military bases. Furthermore, mechanical failures of military equipment due to electrical overload or overheating will require more maintenance, and more robust equipment innovations. Finally, deployed forces will need to operate in more extreme weather conditions, demanding a review of health risks and training options.
While national governments are primarily responsible for implementing adaptation strategies, Stoltenberg is right to call for NATO’s oversight and involvement in this process. The UK and the U.S. are already set to move their naval bases and low-lying airstrips to higher ground, while France has acknowledged some of its infrastructure’s vulnerability. Some training resources for soldiers exist, like the NATO Center of Excellence in Norway for Cold Weather Operations. While these adaptations are necessary, NATO should monitor that these changes do not undermine the interoperability of national militaries. Hence, to sustain NATO’s collective defense, these transitions processes should be fostered and coordinated within NATO.
Disaster Response as a More Suitable Task for Others
Militaries will increasingly be needed for disaster and emergency response to environmental disasters. In point 36 of its 2022 Strategic Concept, NATO recognizes the need to guarantee the resources, capabilities, training, and command structures to deploy and sustain military and civilian crisis management. Experts point to the wide range of unique resources that militaries can contribute to disaster mitigation, ranging from monitoring and early-warning systems to strategic anticipation capabilities and rapid assessments of the specific relief supplies needed.
But how much responsibility should NATO bear in this objective? Climate change-related disasters ignore borders and will likely occur in multiple regions simultaneously, meaning resources would be most efficiently managed at an international level. Still, NATO’s primary role remains effective defense and deterrence. If NATO’s forces are increasingly deployed for humanitarian purposes, this might impact their responsiveness for territorial defense. Furthermore, NATO is a purely intergovernmental organization. NATO’s reliance on consensus might undermine its ability to swiftly respond to environmental emergencies.
Arguably, the EU is better placed to take responsibility in the transatlantic disaster response, while NATO, tackling the war in Ukraine, should focus on its primary task of territorial defense. While NATO’s European-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) has been used in civil emergencies in the past, it still remains underutilized and underfunded. The EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Center coordinates its Civil Protection Mechanism, which has often been activated by EU and non-EU countries. Also, Finland and Sweden joining NATO should bolster NATO-EU cooperation and thereby allow the EU to take over some coordination and monitoring efforts while being able to draw on NATO’s resources. Importantly, the EU has a comparative advantage in tasks with both civilian and military dimensions, with NATO being specialized on the latter.
Hence, NATO, the EU, and other skilled organizations should discuss who will bear the primary responsibility in the European and Transatlantic disaster response, and how responsibility and resources can be more effectively shared and coordinated. While NATO should support when strategic skills and military resources are required, other organizations like the EU should take on leadership in the field of disaster response.
NATO’s Obligation for Mitigation
Climate change will lead to more collective and individual insecurity, which means NATO cannot ignore this challenge. Stoltenberg announced NATO’s first climate target in June, aiming to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and down to zero emissions by 2050. This target is necessary, considering the carbon footprint of militaries. The US Department of Defense alone is the world’s largest petroleum consumer. Moreover, military emissions are often exempted from states’ climate targets, leading to many underreported and unregulated excess emissions.
Unfortunately, NATO’s targets face valid criticisms. First, the target only relates to NATO’s own assets, whose missions are minimal compared to those of national allies’ contributions. Second, NATO’s emission monitoring methodology has not been publicized, undermining the target’s verifiability.
Hence, while NATO should keep the target, or, better yet, increase it, and publicize its methodology, NATO would do better in using its platform to coordinate and encourage national governments to produce and procure more sustainable military equipment and energy sources. Such transitions must be handled carefully, to prevent vulnerabilities to NATO allies’ interoperability and new supply chain dependencies. With NATO’s again increasing carbon footprint given its support for Ukraine, it is crucial that NATO uses its platform to remind Allies of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to agree on common targets.
Clearly, NATO has a role to play in the climate response, but not as fully envisaged as in the 2022 Strategic Concept. As Jens Stoltenberg reiterated, NATO is not the first responder to climate change, but a military alliance. Arguably, NATO acts the best as a platform for consultations between partners and research experts, while NATO leaders like the Secretary General can motivate allies in certain directions. It should act as an oversight and coordination body, to both ensure that allies commit themselves to these important goals, and that they do not contradict NATO’s primary purpose: transatlantic security and defense.