Since the Soviet Union collapsed, analysts have asked again and again: “Whither NATO?” Russia put that debate to rest. But while Vladimir Putin’s revanchist designs present the clearest threat to the alliance, this is not the Cold War world.
Since 1991, the world population has increased by 2 billion, the Internet and global marketplace connect nations across vast distances, and transnational threats, including state failure and proliferation of nuclear materials, are rising. Overlaid on this landscape is climate change — the “threat multiplier” of the 21st century — according to the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which places significant strains on water, food and energy security. It’s a threat to all nations, including NATO members.
It is these choppy waters that Jens Stoltenberg, the next secretary general of NATO, must navigate. Stoltenberg has a successful track record on traditional security issues and climate change, having bolstered Norwegian defense forces as prime minister, negotiated resolution of a long-standing border dispute with Russia, committed Norwegian forces to NATO missions and acted as a climate envoy. Success now will depend on his ability to tackle these issues jointly.
What’s climate change got to do with NATO?
While it seems strange to discuss NATO’s climate posture as Russian forces mass on Europe’s doorstep, the truth is collective security institutions must have the capacity to manage multiple threats on multiple fronts — or as we say in America, “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Like threats from states, threats from climate change can be unpredictable and destabilizing. More extreme weather events will stress member state forces called upon as first responders. Pressure on food production and prices threaten NATO’s backyard, as well as burden national budgets in a time of austerity.
Rapid sea ice melt is shifting the geopolitics of the Arctic region, creating new challenges for member states bordering the region. And water insecurity in regions of strategic concern to NATO, such as North Africa and the Middle East, is contributing to the devastation of crops and livestock and widespread displacement of peoples.
These cascading disasters associated with climate change could diminish NATO’s capacity and fray the bonds that hold the alliance together — just when those bonds are needed most.
NATO secretaries general have taken on climate change before. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer highlighted the threat in 2008, and in 2009, Anders Fogh Rasmussen integrated climate concerns into NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept. And then … nothing very significant happened. Why the drop-off? It’s a complicated mix of competing priorities and declining political will.
In this context, holding the attention of NATO’s most powerful members, as well as the international security community, will be critical.
Despite legitimate competing priorities in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan, Secretary General-designate Stoltenberg has a responsibility to address the climate threat head-on. Support from the alliance’s major powers, and knowledge of climate risks, give him unique authority to do so. Furthermore, the US military, leader of the NATO military command structure, has been proactive in addressing climate threats as highlighted in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the DoD Arctic Strategy and robust statements by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
This lays the groundwork for Stoltenberg to make bold decisions on climate change without taking his eye off of other pressing concerns. The low-hanging fruit includes raising the profile of climate change at NATO summits and other security forums; encouraging member states to integrate climate into intelligence assessments, national security and defense strategies; supporting partner nation militaries to manage more frequent and severe natural disasters; advancing strategic investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy; and developing a common NATO strategy for addressing climate impacts on military operations. Such actions will help NATO avoid the higher costs of responding to these threats post facto.
As distinct from more unpredictable security threats, climate projections have given us considerable warning of the range of probable outcomes. But as the scientific research confirms, climate change is not a future threat. It’s here, and it is changing the very nature of the global security landscape.
Stoltenberg’s breadth of experience and strong support from the United States, including US military leadership, on climate change give him a critical opportunity to prepare NATO for this uncertain future. Success could go a long way toward shaping regional and global responses to the emerging threats of the 21st century. ■
Sherri Goodman is executive director, CNA Military Advisory Board and former US deputy undersecretary of defense. Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell are co-founders and directors, Center for Climate and Security.