A climate security plan for Nato: collective defence for the 21st century

Source(s): Policy Exchange

Erin Sikorsky and Sherri Goodman highlight the relevance of a changing climate on NATO’s founding mission, and how the Alliance must respond.

By Erin Sikorsky and Sherri Goodman


Since its founding in 1949, the core organising principle of NATO has remained the same: collective defence. An attack against one is an attack against all. Article 5, which articulates this principle, has famously only been invoked once, in the wake of 9/11. Today, however, some of the biggest security risks facing the Alliance do not come from states or organisations alone, but instead from transnational, actorless threats like climate change and pandemics. What does collective defence mean in the face of increased extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and surging sea levels? More importantly, how do these climate change effects exacerbate or contribute to other security risks facing NATO, whether the rise of geopolitics in the Arctic, political instability in the Middle East and North Africa, or the increasing need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief within Alliance members themselves?

These questions are not completely new to NATO. In fact, NATO has long been a leader amongst global security institutions in addressing the climate-security nexus, integrating the risks posed by climate change and environmental stress into its 2010 Strategic Concept. Since Jens Stoltenberg took the helm as NATO’s Secretary General in 2014, the Alliance has accelerated its efforts to address these risks. Stoltenberg has rightly pushed for the adoption of  a NATO-wide climate security strategy, arguing that, “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. As the planet heats up, our weather becomes wilder, warmer, windier and wetter, putting communities under pressure as sources of food, fresh water and energy are threatened … It is essential that we adapt to this new reality.”[1] To that end, in March 2021 at a NATO ministerial meeting the Alliance agreed to pursue a strategy aimed at increasing NATO’s ability to “understand, adapt and mitigate the security impact of climate change.”[2]

The task now is to take this high-level strategic push and translate it into sustained, long-term action. Doing so will require steady leadership toward building political consensus, as well as a concrete demonstration for NATO member states that tackling the issue together will not only mitigate climate security risks but also complement action to address other threats, saving money and resources in the long run. As the economic strains from the COVID-19 pandemic endure, questions of burden-sharing within the Alliance are likely to remain contentious.[3] Some also warn that NATO should not become an “all-purpose alliance”[4] that loses its focus. Given these dynamics, any proposals perceived as expanding the Alliance’s core mission without justification, or as not benefiting all member states, may face opposition from some Allies.

Alas, making the case that climate change poses serious security risks relevant to NATO’s mission is not hard to do. This article begins by examining four areas of particularly acute risks: first, climate change-induced increases in demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery missions (HA/DR); second, the impacts of climate change on military readiness and operations; third, how climate change effects can exacerbate state fragility; and finally, how it contributes to geopolitical competition. Given this landscape, the next section of the article discusses what a climate security plan for NATO should include. We detail concrete steps NATO should take in the areas of building climate domain awareness, prioritising climate resilient infrastructure, and leading by example towards reducing carbon emissions.

Climate Security Risks Facing NATO

Increase in Demand for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief Missions

NATO’s long-standing commitment to protection of populations and civil defence have led to its important role in HA/DR missions both within NATO member states as well as other countries, in partnership with the UN and non-governmental organisations. NATO conducted a disaster relief mission in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and has contributed to numerous efforts to respond to flooding across Europe, including in Ukraine, Romania and Hungary.

Looking ahead, demand for such support is likely to expand as climate change-induced extreme weather events like intense floods, storms, droughts, and heatwaves increase in the coming years. Overlaying these events with socio-political developments, including increased population density in urban areas, often along coasts, as well as governments strained by complex crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unsurprising that the human and financial cost of these disasters continues to grow. In the period 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many on more than one occasion) resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses. This is a sharp increase over the previous twenty years; between 1980 and 1999, 4,212 disasters were linked to natural hazards worldwide resulting in approximately US$1.63 trillion in economic losses. Much of the difference is explained by a rise in climate-related disasters including extreme weather events: from 3,656 climate-related events between 1980 and 1999, to 6,681 climate-related disasters between 2000 and 2019.[5]

These costs are not relegated to the developing world. Insurance company MunichRe has found that mortality risk related to heatwaves is rising in Europe, as heatwave frequency, duration, and intensity increase, and resistance decreases due to aging societies.[6] Climate disasters within Europe are also contributing to displacement and internal migration. Bosnia Herzogovina, Spain, France and Germany have seen the highest numbers of internal displacement due to climate hazards in recent years.[7] Meanwhile, the United States faces myriad climate-linked disasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there were 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the United States in 2020, with a combined cost of $95 billion. The previous annual record was 16 such events.[8]

Challenges to Military Readiness and Infrastructure

Climate change effects such as extreme heat, extreme weather, and sea level rise will increasingly impact NATO military bases and infrastructure, while also straining NATO troops and equipment when operating abroad. NATO installations along the Mediterranean and Atlantic are particularly vulnerable, while missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa already face climate security risks regularly.

Sea level rise and extreme weather events are some of the most concerning – and potentially most expensive – climate risks threatening naval bases and coastal NATO military infrastructure. For example, Hampton Roads in the US State of Virginia, named “the greatest concentration of military might in the world,” by former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and home to NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, already suffers from regular flooding. Given the low-lying nature of the site, multiple scenarios for the years 2035-2100 find the area will be regularly inundated. A 2018 Military Expert Panel report found this development would be a significant impediment to force deployments for critical Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific war-fighting and humanitarian operations.[9] Major European ports like Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg face similar challenges. Even more concerning, increasingly sophisticated modeling suggests previous models have underestimated likely sea level rise, suggesting a need to rapidly scale up preparations to deal with what were once considered “worst case” scenarios.[10]

Extreme heat is also an escalating risk for NATO troops and equipment, particularly those deployed in operations and training missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa. Already, the average number of ‘hot’ days per year in Afghanistan increased by 25 days between 1960 and 2003, and scientists assess warming in Iraq is far above the global average, with temperatures 2.3°C warmer in the past five years than at the end of the 19th century –about double the amount of warming seen on Earth as a whole in the same time period. A US Army War College study in 2019 found the simple need for water in these increasingly arid environments poses a logistical challenge, noting that in the 2000s in Iraq, over 864,000 bottles of water were consumed each month at one Forward Operating Base, with that number doubling during hotter months.[11] Even more concerning are the risks posed by the need to resupply – more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded from 2003-2007 in attacks on fuel and water convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq.[12]

Exacerbating Instability in Fragile States

Climate change effects already strain weak governments in fragile states, as rising temperatures and changing weather patterns (e.g. drought and/or flooding) contribute to irregular migration, public discontent with government services, or contestation over increasingly scarce food and water resources. These challenges are most pronounced in states and regions already suffering from poor governance practices and environmental degradation – rarely does climate change alone cause instability. In the most serious cases, this instability can spill over into armed conflict or spur external migration – both of which have consequences for NATO’s mission.

The situation in Basra, Iraq, exemplifies these complex dynamics. This city of approximately four million people sits on the Shatt al-Arab River, created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before emptying into the Persian Gulf. Due to a combination of climate change effects, upstream infrastructure development, and poor governance practices, the Iraqi government in 2018 estimated that the water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates had been reduced by 30 percent since the 1980s.[13] Meanwhile, due to the combination of less fresh water flow, sea level rise and environmental degradation, saltwater intrusion into the region has increased, negatively impacting agriculture and fish farming.[14][15] The lack of clean water in the city has led to periodic outbreaks of waterborne disease, as well as the eruption of anti-government protests. As of January 2019, an estimated 15,000 people had been displaced in the region due to water shortages.[16] Developments in Basra have contributed to broader instability and political challenges in an already fragile country, with the potential to undermine NATO missions elsewhere in Iraq. Climate change-induced sea level rise will only make water problems more acute in the coming years.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia, climate-induced migration continues to grow. While migration is largely a positive adaptation strategy for stressed communities, when climate effects force large numbers of people to move quickly or in irregular patterns, it can contribute to political instability within states and lead to external migration. According to a report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, in the six month period between September 2020 to February 2021, around 10 million people worldwide were displaced due to natural hazards, including climate change-induced flooding and droughts.[17] Given climate trajectories, these dynamics are also likely to intensify in coming years.

Contributions to Geopolitical Competition

In addition to shaping dynamics within states, climate change also affects security relationships between states. As countries look to navigate a warming world, it is no surprise that competition and contestation over constrained resources may increasingly occur. The changing climate has the potential to shift regional and global power dynamics or inflame already tense inter-state relations. 

Of particular concern to NATO is the intersection of climate change with the growing militarisation in the Arctic. The Arctic has emerged as a region of potential geostrategic competition, primarily because rising temperatures, melting sea ice, and collapsing permafrost now grant access to a region previously locked in ice most of year. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and by some estimates could be largely ice free in the summers by 2035.[18]While the Arctic has historically been a region characterised by cooperation and diplomacy, it has more recently become a zone of increased tensions over valuable energy and mineral resources, and access to shipping routes. The rapid melting of the old growth sea ice has given rise to a significant expansion in military and economic activities, including shipping, resource extraction, and other commerce.

Changes in the Arctic are feeding into China’s and Russia’s strategic ambitions, both regionally and globally. As US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in response to questions in his confirmation hearing in early 2021, “Climate change is drastically altering the natural environment of the Arctic – and the strategic balance. This is fast becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns about the Russian military build-up and aggressive behaviour in the Arctic – and around the world. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about Chinese intentions in the region.”

A Climate Security Plan for NATO

Though NATO is not new to the climate security conversation, as it begins to fill in the details of its climate security strategy, it must consider some key questions. How should it stitch the disparate existing climate security elements across the organisation into an Alliance-wide approach? What approach should it take to climate security analysis and warning, and how can it ensure risk assessments translate into action? Where can it look for best practices in climate resilience and how should these practices be integrated into mission and infrastructure planning? What role should energy resilience and decarbonisation play in a climate security plan? The steps we outline below – building climate domain awareness, prioritising climate-resilient infrastructure, and leading by example to reduce carbon emissions – begin to answer these questions and will help “climate-proof” the Alliance for the 21st century.

Building Climate Domain Awareness

The first steps include creating more granular knowledge about the nexus of climate change and security risks, and ensuring that knowledge is accessible and actionable for all NATO programmes and allies. As analysts and scholars continue to build out risk assessments and early warning methodologies on this topic, NATO should develop robust pathways to both learn from and deepen this analysis. The Alliance has included climate security risks in its foresight analysis, and other efforts are ongoing through the Crisis Management and Disaster Response Centre of Excellence (CMDR COE) based in Sofia, Bulgaria. The CMDR COE has sponsored research, workshops and training courses focused on climate security effects in the Balkans and elsewhere. As discussed earlier in this article, however, climate security risks are broader than an increase in HA/DR missions, and will touch on nearly every aspect of NATO’s work going forward. Therefore, we support the NATO 2030 recommendation to create a standalone Climate Security Centre of Excellence designed to bring together outside experts and NATO members to study the topic. Such a COE could help centralise NATO’s climate-related meteorological and oceanographic data collection, and could develop best practices that can be integrated across Allied countries as well as other COEs, including those focused on maritime security, civil-military cooperation, energy security and modeling and simulation.

The good news for establishing such a COE is that the world possesses unprecedented foresight capabilities that can inform sophisticated climate security risk assessments. Technological and scientific advances have led to the development of complex models with a strong record of accurate predictions of the rate and scale of global climatic changes under various emissions scenarios, and these models are continually being refined. Use of these models as well as data in security assessments provides a decisive advantage that is not available when examining other security risks posed by state actors where future developments are much more difficult to predict. A NATO Climate Security COE could leverage such tools to produce a common risk assessment, for use in both planning existing missions as well as forecasting potential hot spots or instability risks that may threaten NATO, whether in the Arctic, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa or even within NATO countries in future high emissions scenarios. Such a centre could also conduct modeling, simulations and wargames to support NATO strategy and planning.

Prioritising Climate-Resilient Infrastructure

As the Alliance better understands the climate security threat, it must also take action to build the resilience of NATO bases and operations, and launch initiatives designed to help member states adapt their military, security, and critical civilian infrastructure to withstand the climate change effects that are coming in the near term, regardless of future emissions trajectories. These initiatives could include low-carbon projects designed to significantly lower the scale and scope of climate change, bolstering security and creating long-lasting employment opportunities. In the face of increasing threats from sea level rise, extreme weather events and wildfires, it should involve a comprehensive programme to repair, construct, fortify, and responsibly site the nation’s interconnected military, energy, transportation, agriculture, water, and commerce infrastructure in a climate-resilient fashion.

This is an area in which there are best practices to be shared amongst Alliance members. For example, NATO could adapt tools developed by the United States such as its US Army Climate Assessment Tool which was designed to help U.S. military installation leaders and personnel evaluate risks to bases and facilities. Similarly, the new UK Ministry of DefenseClimate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach includes recommendations the Alliance can draw on, including for operational self-sufficiency and new forms of military training.[19] Another model for best practice is Norway and its innovation and leadership on Arctic climate security and resilience.[20] NATO should also consider partnerships or exchanges with states who have taken action toward building more climate-resilient security forces and critical civilian infrastructure, such as Sweden and Finland in Europe, or Japan and South Korea in Asia.

NATO should also leverage its expertise to help developing countries outside the alliance build resilience and adapt to climate risks. This could be incorporated into training missions and other engagements, with the goal of promoting regular military-to-military and civil-military international engagement on climate change preparation. Not only would this enhance the resilience of these countries and potentially prevent climate security risks that could spill over as threats to NATO, it could also enhance NATO influence in strategic locales.

Leading by Example Towards Reducing Carbon Emissions

NATO has spent decades working on making its military systems interoperable for more seamless conduct of NATO operations. Now the alliance needs to expand and update its plans for energy interoperability in a decarbonising future. Greening defence forces is a small but important piece of the broader all-hands-on-deck effort needed globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a scale that’s meaningful for security. NATO is already leading by example in reducing the carbon footprint of its activities through such initiatives like its environmentally friendly NATO Headquarters building, and other “Smart Energy” efforts. To bolster these initiatives, the alliance should revisit and implement some of the recommendations in the 2015 final report of the Smart Energy team, such as naming a “Smart Energy” champion and country-level focal points.[21] These types of integrated leadership positions can help ensure programmes move from the lab to the field more quickly.

Similarly, NATO’s Green Defence effort is due for a boost. The NATO 2030 report called for the Alliance to, “reinvigorate, reassess, and revise its 2014 Green Defence framework in light of evolving challenges and emerging green technologies.” There is an opportunity to look for synergies across member states as many pursue “green recoveries” from the COVID-19 pandemic, and explore potential partnerships with the private sector as well. Critically, NATO should prioritise demonstrating to member states that green procurement does not compromise mission performance, and in fact can contribute to decisive advantages on the battlefield, such as reducing supply chain risks to fueling forward operating bases or eliminating the use of noisy generators by clandestine teams.[22][23] 


NATO is not alone as it charts a course toward “climate proofing” its security strategy. Militaries and security institutions around the globe are grappling with how best to shift their posture in the face of a new and different security landscape due to climate change. The expansion of the International Military Council on Climate Security, a group of senior military leaders and security experts from more than 38 countries dedicated to anticipating, analysing and addressing the security risks of climate change, is one indication of the growing recognition that militaries need to adapt to meet climate risks head on. Another indication is the centrality of the US Department of Defense (DoD) in President Joe Biden’s January 2021 Executive Order (EO) on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The EO tasks DoD with not only evaluating direct climate security risks but also a strategic-level analysis of climate security risks to be incorporated into the US National Defense Strategy, wargaming, and other high-level planning efforts.

Preparing a collective defence for the 21st century requires a broader definition of security risks. It is clear that climate change effects both directly threaten the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of NATO member states, and also increase the likelihood of risks posed by state instability and conflict as well as geopolitical competition. NATO will only live up to its mission if it redoubles its efforts to both prepare for the climate change risks already on the way and do its part to prevent catastrophic climate change effects in the latter half of the century. As a report from the NATO 2030 Young Leaders Group concluded in early 2021, the Alliance must adopt, “a more comprehensive, holistic, and inclusive understanding of security towards the 2030s,” and climate change must feature more prominently on NATO’s agenda because, “it has deeply destabilising effects on international peace and security and, more crucially, on the mere existence of life on earth.”[24]

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