Climate Change Requires NATO Leadership

By Tanner Huggins, Transatlantic Security Analyst


Climate change issues have long been a contentious subject amongst international policymakers, but this has been cast in a new light with the growing academic work on the “securitization of climate change.” This presents climate change in the framework of global stability issues: naturally, the argument goes, desertification, increased sea levels, and other environmental changes that cause land to become uninhabitable and destroy resources or cause them to become inaccessible will lead to increased conflict over said resources and living space, and exacerbate existing conflicts of all stripes.

The role that climate change plays in international security is not often immediately apparent, but its effects filter through many levels of international politics and security. In an article for the Atlantic Initiative, Roni Kay Marie O’Dell writes that the Russian heat wave of 2010, which decreased worldwide wheat output and led to an increase in worldwide food prices. The rise in commodity prices was one of the catalysts of early protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which eventually led to the collapse of those governments.


UK military officers also warned that as climate change leads to increased costs of goods and food, violent conflict in the developing world will also increase. They suggested that “the most severe climate impacts will fall on the relatively poor countries of the tropics” — countries that serve as international trade hubs and oil exporters to most of the developed world.  Rising food prices have also led to “significant deterioration of democratic institutions and a significant increase in the incidence of anti-government demonstrations, riots, and civil conflict” in low-income countries, exacerbating underlying sociopolitical instabilities.


In the coming years, the effects of climate change on international security will only increase. Admiral James G. Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, has warned that “global warming and a race for resources could lead to conflict in the Arctic.” With melting ice caps and other rapid changes in the Arctic regions, new sources of oil and natural gas are being discovered with regularity. Tensions between Russia and NATO have remained high in the region, leading Professor Paul Berkman, head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Program at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to say that “the cold war never ended in the Arctic Ocean.” The exploitation of these oil and gas reserves, like those on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen that until recently remained “locked” under a frozen continental shelf, could lead to serious conflict between Russia and Norway — and, therefore, between Russia and NATO.


Organizations like the UK-based Crisis Forum have highlighted the growing importance of climate change in regards to violent conflict, and the international community has recently begun to move on the issue. Though the previous US administration considered climate change a “taboo subject,” under the Obama administration climate change has started to receive more attention, both from the US and other national militaries.


NATO has also taken a strong stance on climate change. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has identified climate change as one of the alliance’s top priorities, saying that any increase in global temperatures would act as a “multiplier” on existing conflicts, pushing the world towards increased instability. The alliance went as far as to make climate change a core component of its New Strategic Concept in 2010, and NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program has conducted several workshops on the social and environmental effects of climate change. NATO has also ardently promoted awareness on climate change, stressing the importance of international cooperation, information-sharing, and energy security.


However, it is important to note that, as the Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speech Writing Section Michael Rühle makes clear, climate change and energy security are “already being dealt with by a considerable number of actors, ranging from the EU to the International Energy Agency, and from the OECD to the private sector.” Who, then, should take charge of climate change-related security issues?


The debate on how this should be implemented is ongoing, but whatever form it eventually takes, the nature of the problem means that a transatlantic focus will be necessary. As Rafaela Rodrigues de Brito notes,  it is “impossible for a single state to tackle” the problems posed by climate change. International cooperation on climate change securitization is a necessity, and this will inherently include a military component. NATO should strive to assume that role. The alliance should act as both a military and political consultant and a protector of vital infrastructure and resources, ensuring that access and availability of natural resources remain open to all that would be affected by resource competition. NATO should also encourage cooperation among other organizations with a stake in climate change, using securitization as a motivator to encourage international political and institutional progress on the issue. Finally, it should include other nations in its mission — Russia, for example — that have a stake in resource availability. Global problems require global solutions, and NATO leadership is a necessary component of that process.

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