NATO and Climate Change

By THO Contributor, Beliz Aluc

NATO’s Action Plan for Climate Change

Climate Change is one of the defining challenges of our times. It is a threat multiplier that impacts Allied security, both in the Transatlantic area and around the world. International organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which is an international political and military organization with the aim of guaranteeing the freedom and security of its members through political and military means, becomes a crucial actor in facilitating collaboration and creating dialogue around climate change. 

Through NATO's recent 2030 Report, policies were created to address the various threats not only to NATO Ally countries but also to the world and this also includes climate change. In the report, climate change is defined as a security challenge primarily because of its irreversible global impact. Climate change shapes the geopolitical environment and influences state behaviour. It disproportionately impacts the women and girls as well as the poor, vulnerable or marginalized populations. This global threat potentially exacerbates state fragility, fuel conflicts, and lead to displacement, migration, and human mobility, creating conditions that can be exploited by state and non-state actors that threaten or challenge the Alliance.  

Following this threat identification, on 23-24 March 2021, NATO Foreign Ministers endorsed NATO’s Climate Change and Security Agenda. It encompasses measures to increase both NATO’s and Allies’ awareness of the impact of climate change on security, along with developing clear adaptation and mitigation measures, and enhanced outreach, while ensuring a credible deterrence and defence posture and upholding the priorities of the safety of military personnel and operational and cost effectiveness. One of the examples for enhancing outreach include “strengthening exchanges with partner countries, as well as with international and regional organizations that are active on climate change and security issues, including the EU, the UN, and others, where appropriate,” 

In the Brussels Summit report, issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 14 June 2021, one of the goals is the “aim for NATO to become the leading international organisation when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security.” As Biden has emphasized in the summit, in addition to facilitating collaboration between the Allies on the issue, NATO’s leadership is also crucial in mitigating action plans of important international actors like China and Russia.

Russia and China’s Threat on Climate

Climate change has a strong influence on geopolitics. As arctic ice melts, Russia stands to gain access to oil and gas fields historically locked beneath northern ice and is building up capability to launch cruise missiles from newly navigable waters. As polar seaways open up, China is eyeing a new “Polar Silk Road” , shorter shipping routes that could cut weeks off of shipping times from Asia to Europe. As a result, climate change has been also raising concerns about security threats from China and Russia that can be underway by the constantly changing geopolitics. 

In addition, Russia and China are known not to make any commitments to deal with climate change. In the Glasgow Summit on Climate Change that started on October 31, 2021 and will be going until November 12, 2021, G20 countries gathered to set goals to combat climate change. However, as President Biden pointed out, both Russia and China “did not show up” at the summit. This was a big disappointment as Biden has emphasized since they are one of the countries with the impact on climate change with their high production capacities and high populations. 

Moving Forward: NATO’s role in addressing China and Russia on Climate Change

Moving forward, it’s crucial to define NATO’s role and place in the midst of these two issues surrounding climate change: the threat of China and Russia and the physical impact of rising temperatures. China and Russia’s efforts to take advantage of climate change by extracting oil and other natural resources from the Arctic may impact both Canada and the U.S. immensely as well as other Arctic Council members like Iceland and Denmark who are also members of the NATO Alliance. In addition, if Russia has access to the coastline as a result of the arctic ice melting down, it also would have an opportunity to militarize its arctic coast through naval bases and military ports which could threaten the security of other NATO countries. 

 While NATO as an institution has tools at its disposal to help allies harmonize their approaches to technology governance and mitigate NATO’s own contributions to global climate change, the United States and NATO will need to enhance their cooperation with the European Union and Arctic Council, which over time will play a greater role in addressing the China and Russia challenge and climate crisis. Under this light, NATO can cooperate with other Arctic Council members like Finland, Sweden and Norway to form a response against Russian and Chinese demands on the territory, Northeast and Northwest passages. This could be done by various sanctions as well as agreements on the limitation of oil drilling, policies on overfishing, and rules on resource extraction. These limitations and agreements would prevent any exploitation of the region by China or Russia.

Despite the importance of reducing the emissions of NATO and NATO countries’ militaries, climate change is a transnational challenge that demands a global, not only national or regional, solution. After all, China, the U.S., and Russia are the world’s first, second, and fourth-highest carbon emitting countries, respectively. A robust response to the existential threat of climate change thus requires great power cooperation between the three on these issues, separate from the military arena. Yet finding a balance between cooperation and competition will be crucial. U.S. and China collaboration on reducing carbon emissions and joint pledge to take enhanced climate actions shows a great example of balance between cooperation and competition especially when it comes to the climate crisis. NATO can follow that example with its bilateral agreements and take the lead on transforming the climate policies around the world.