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Professor Mark Nevitt: NATO’s Renewed Focus on Climate Change & Security—What You Need to Know

Posted on Wednesday 6/23/2021
Mark P. Nevitt

(Just Security | June 23, 2021) Last week, the 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member States released two important security documents: the Brussels Summit Communiqué as well as a Climate Change and Security Action Plan. The Communiqué reaffirmed NATO’s pledge to its founding document, the 1951 Washington Treaty and stated that it is “firmly committed” to the treaty’s critical Article 5 collective self-defense provision. Article 5 bonds each NATO member together, explicitly stating that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies. This Communique represented a welcome departure from the former Administration’s approach to NATO, which failed to even reaffirm the United States’ historic commitment to Article 5.

In addition, the Communiqué also reinvigorated NATO’s approach to climate change, characterizing climate as a security “threat multiplier” and “one of the defining challenges of our times.” In doing so, the Communiqué endorsed NATO’s new Action Plan on Climate Change and Security, which was released the same day. This pithy but powerful plan — just three pages – expressly acknowledges climate change’s role in state political fragility, conflict, displacement, and migration. It also specified four specific action items to keep an eye on:
NATO’s Climate Action Plan reinforces NATO’s commitment to prepare for the climate-security century. As I have previously argued, the future will increasingly be shaped by climate change’s destabilizing impacts — a vision now clearly shared by all 30 NATO members. NATO’s Brussels Communiqué and Climate Action Plan represent welcome, forward-looking steps on climate change. NATO’s focus on climate change is also completely aligned with President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategy, a key, strategic-level national security planning document where “climate” is mentioned 27 times.

  1. Awareness: Increase climate awareness among allies via an annual Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment.
  2. AdaptationAdapt to climate change by incorporating climate change considerations into its work on many areas to include defense planning, training and exercises, and disaster response.
  3. Mitigation: Mitigate NATO’s contribution of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by developing a novel “mapping and analytical methodology” for GHG emissions from military activities and installations.
  4. Outreach: Enhance outreach with a broad swath of climate-partners to include international and regional organizations, the United Nations, EU, academia, and industry.

Despite these bold pronouncements, questions remain on translating NATO’s bold, strategic climate initiatives into action. As NATO implements the Action Plan, I highlight three questions to help focus our collective attention.

1. How Does the NATO Climate Plan Translate into NATO Arctic Operations?

While the NATO Climate Plan does not explicitly mention the Arctic (a missed opportunity, in my opinion), the Plan should nevertheless signal a shift in NATO’s approach to the rapidly changing Arctic operational environment. Due to climate change, scientists estimate that the Arctic is warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world. That pace appears to be accelerating, due to a pernicious feedback melting loop. There even remains the possibility of an ice-free Arctic summer by 2035. This massive melt is opening new navigational trade routes for civilian and military vessels through the Northwest Passage (through Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (along the Russian coastline). Vessels are now increasingly able to transit once impenetrable waterways and are beginning to assess the risks of other historic routes, such as the crowded — and sometimes blocked — Suez Canal. Climate change is also renewing the possibility of natural resource extraction on each Arctic coastal state’s continental shelf. An estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas lies on the Arctic seabed …

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