Blog | October 12, 2017

NATO and Climate Change: The Need for a More Coherent Approach


Climate change represents a non-traditional threat to international security and the future existence of modern civilization. Year after year, drought, fam­ine, storms and flooding become increasingly frequent and destructive. Be­sides being a non-traditional threat, climate change impacts are a threat multi­plier, reflecting a worsened ability for families to provide for themselves, increasing refugee and migration flows, and even acting as a catalyst for the spread of diseases, potentially causing or ex­acerbating lethal pandemics. Ultimately, increased occurrence of extreme weather pat­terns and major natural disasters amplify the risk of significant population displacement, and subsequent political and economic disruption.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has not been immune to the threats posed by climate change. This issue is extremely important for the Alliance because it is directly linked to NATO’s operational capacity and response to security challenges emanating from the environment (e.g., preparing for and responding to natural disasters, adapting military assets to a hostile physical environment, addressing negative impacts of climate change such as climate migrants, etc.). Responsibly, the Alliance has already developed policies, frameworks and designated units re­sponsible for addressing climate change as a non-traditional security threat. More precisely, NATO is currently trying to incorporate geostrategic implications of climate-related threats into its deliberate planning, contingency planning and crisis action planning processes. Nevertheless, the pressing question remains: To what extent is NATO capable of managing climate change as a non-traditional threat multi­plier?

Traditional vs. non-traditional threat

The idea of security clearly distinguishes between military and non-military threats. Traditionally, the academic sphere of international relations has given more attention to so-called “hard” threats, which are roughly defined as mili­tary induced threats among and towards other states. This concept was estab­lished with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and has remained a respected element of security doctrine into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, the biggest problem with the traditional threat concept is the exclusion of threats originating from nature. In present day, the concept fails to recognize the trans-border and non-traditional impacts of climate change, including mass migration of populations from countries affected by environmental degradation (i.e., food and water scarcity) and that could contribute to the instability of the host countries.

Climate change is a 21st century security threat. It is a plane­tary scale threat for people of all classes, nations, po­litical ideologies, countries and, most troubling, it is hard to predict. The environmental sec­tor encompasses broad fields of threats to security, ranging from issues of survival of species to large-scale concerns such as minimizing the impact of catastrophic floods. Non-traditional threats are harder to define and require different re­sponse strategies because they focus on the relationship between human civili­zation and the biosphere and not on the relationship among states them­selves.

NATO and Climate Security

NATO first defined and recognized environmental challenges as a potential threat to security in 1969, establishing the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society. Since then the Alliance has developed several initiatives that addressed the non-traditional threat character of climate change. More recently, NATO founded the Science for Peace and Security that is a policy tool and platform for dialogue based on scientific re­search, innovation and knowledge exchange. The Alliance officially recognized climate change as a threat in the 2010 Strategic Concept for the Defense and Security of the Members of NATO.

The Emerging Security Chal­lenges Division (ESCD) was established the same year as the Strategic Concept, in response to a growing range of non-traditional risks and challenges, with climate change being one of them. The division’s goal is to monitor and anticipate threats arising from non-traditional risks and move non-traditional security challenges to the center of NATO’s attention and action on the ground. Moreover, NATO adopted the Green Defense framework which among other things highlights NATO’s readiness to explore smart energy (i.e., renewable energy application for military use in order to reduce emissions and diminish exposure to reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy).

In May 2014, NATO successfully tested its climate security response mechanism when a low-pressure cy­clone in Bosnia and Herzegovina caused the largest floods and landslides in their recorded history, costing billions of USD. Twenty-one NATO members provided humanitarian aid and critical supplies across Bosnia and Herzegovina. Upon the request of the Bosnian government, NATO acti­vated the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), which conducted operations in flooded Bosnian territory. Without the engagement of NATO’s EADRCC and NATO troops on the ground, Bosnia and Herzegovina would have faced serious if not insurmountable obstacles in its recovery efforts. However, the climate security initiatives discussed above are limited in size and scope when compared to initiatives dealing with traditional security threats. As a result, climate risk is acknowledged, but not yet fully incorporated, in the Alliance’s strategic foresight and more importantly its institutions.

Next Steps

Although NATO is already engaged in developing policy and conducting op­erations responding to climate change impacts, it is easy to understand why climate change considerations are not yet fully integrated into the Alliance’s modus operandi. After all, NATO was conceived in the Cold War and—at least until the September 11 attacks—its main purpose has always been to react to traditional threats.

NATO will need to implement a stronger and more coherent approach to dealing with climate change. More precisely, the Alliance needs to develop more concrete policies as well as the capacities of partner nation forces to man­age environmental security crises; enhance the sharing of climate change-related knowledge between member states and the Al­liance; integrate issues related to climate risk into their training and exercises; and acknowledge the differing national views of its members toward the issue of climate change, so as to limit any disparity in strategic planning.

NATO has proven that it can master traditional threats, but the Alliance must upgrade and accelerate current efforts to develop a concrete strategy that responds to the non-traditional threat multiplier of climate change as a security risk.

Amar Causevic is Researcher at the Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere Programme at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This article summarizes findings form the recent journal article published at George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies’ Connections: The Quarterly Journal.