By Shiloh Fetzek, Senior Fellow for International Affairs
In advance of the NATO Summit Warsaw in July, the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg sat down for an interview with POLITICO Europe. When asked what NATO is doing to address the risks of climate change, he responded by asserting that climate change is in fact a security risk, and an issue to consider in the context of conflict prevention, peace and stability. He also noted that NATO does not have the luxury of choosing the challenges it faces, and has to work to adapt to the changing security environment. Indeed, the challenges that NATO faces are serious and climate change, particularly if not adequately addressed by NATO member states, could very well multiply those challenges and ultimately challenge the NATO mission. However, though the Secretary General appreciated the risks of climate change to NATO’s security landscape, he unfortunately stopped short of describing it as a priority of his.
From the interview:
Alice Stollmeyer: “Last year head of the UN Climate Summit in Paris NATO has stated that climate change poses significant threat multipliers and I was wondering could you tell us what NATO is doing to address this and how to, amid all the other crisis, to keep the climate security threats on the agenda?”
Secretary General Stoltenberg: “First of all, I think it is very important to underline what you just said and that is climate change is also a security threat because it can really change also the conditions for where people live, create new migrant and refugee crises and scarce resources, water, can fuel new conflicts. So climate change is also about preventing conflicts and creating more stability and prosperity, which is good for peace and stability.
Second, NATO is addressing how we can also address, how we can contribute. NATO is not the first responder to climate change. We are a military alliance, but partly everything that can make also military vehicles, military equipment more energy efficient will be good both for the environment but also for the sustainability of the armed forces. So energy efficiency, less energy dependence of the armed forces is good for both the armed forces as armed forces and for the environment. And that’s actually the thing we can do as an alliance. We are also sharing this information with allies, trying to increase their focus and understanding of this, but of course the most important things that can be done with climate change is more related to energy, to ministers of the environment, to other areas than defense.” (57:18 min mark)
The Secretary General rightly notes that climate change multiplies threats to the security environment, and that addressing climate risks can increase peace and stability. It is critically important for someone in his position, as the civilian head of the largest military alliance in the world during a time of significant instability, to acknowledge this. However, that assessment seems to be contradicted by his statement “climate change is more related to energy, to ministers of the environment, to other areas than defense.” If indeed climate change is a security risk, and a factor to consider in conflict prevention and state stability, tasking only “ministers of environment” to address those risks seems insufficient. Addressing security issues, particularly complex transnational ones like climate change, requires a whole of government approach, including defense and foreign ministries (as well as those responsible for environment, energy and development). Indeed, this is something the US Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, and many NATO member state governments, have recognized.
Nevertheless, the Secretary General is right to focus on the extraordinary challenges facing the alliance at this moment in history. As he says:
I will call it a landmark summit and I will call it one of the most important summits in the history of NATO because we are faced with such a fundamentally changed security environment.
Of course, NATO is dealing with significant and immediate challenges on its doorstep, most notably Russia’s revanchist actions in Ukraine, the turmoil in Syria and the broader Mediterranean, hybrid warfare, and terrorist attacks within NATO member states, which may understandably diminish attention to perceived longer term, non-state based risks like climate change. As Stoltenberg states:
All of this has really made the security environment which we are faced with so much more challenging and in many ways more dangerous and therefore NATO has to respond. And we have started that adaptation but we have to make new, important decisions at the summit in Warsaw, making sure that NATO changes, NATO adapts when the world around us is changing and that is what we are going to do at Warsaw.
However, it’s important to note that climate change is not necessarily distinct from these other security risks, but rather, an important factor placing strains on the broader security environment in which these risks play out. Climate change will multiply stress on factors related to peace and state stability, such as water, energy, food, and migration, all of which are key elements of instability in NATO’s backyard. As NATO changes and adapts, how climate change will challenge NATO’s core missions should be a priority.
As the Secretary General continues to help steer the NATO alliance, it will be important for him to connect these dots, as history will likely not be kind to a historic summit that fails to do so. His own advice is pertinent in this context:
We don’t have the luxury of choosing between either addressing the challenges we see to the east, or the threat and the challenges we see to the south. We have to do both at the same time. And that’s exactly what we are doing.
To appropriate an American colloquialism, Stoltenberg is essentially saying that NATO has to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” That’s exactly right. However, without significantly and concretely addressing core issues shaping that security environment, such as climate change, NATO will be left unprepared.
For a few ideas from the Center for Climate and Security on some actions NATO could take in this regards, see here. Also stay tuned for a forthcoming report on the state of NATO preparedness for a changing climate.