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Converging Climate Risks: Government, Military, and Business at NATO 2030

Afghan Air Force and NATO mentors battle floods. July 29, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Jimmie Barrow/RELEASED)

By Elsa Barron and Lily Feldman

There are few challenges more “transatlantic” in nature than the climate crisis. No single nation can fix the issue at hand, yet through strong partnerships, hopefully the worst effects of climate change can be managed to help avert catastrophe. At the NATO 2030 Brussels Forum, taking place on the opening day of the NATO Summit, partnerships around climate security were a leading topic of discussion. The panel, “Operating in Times of Climate Change,” featured experts Congressman Ted Deutch (D-CA), Marsden Hanna, Head of Sustainability and Climate Policy at Google, and Sherri Goodman, Chair of the Board of the Council on Strategic Risks and Senior Strategist at the Center for Climate and Security. The panel, moderated by Janini Vivekanada of Adelphi, addressed major climate risks and opportunities at the intersection of government, security, and business interests, exploring opportunities to expand collaboration around and commitments towards climate action.

Climate Risks 

New climate effects are emerging around the world in every season, ranging from wildfires to polar vortices. No sector, including government, defense, and the private sector, can put off calculation of and preparation for climate risks. Congressman Deutch explained that every community and economic sector in the United States is already – or soon will be – affected by climate change. He furthered his statement by commenting on the lack of current action on climate-related issues, even given a myriad of existing opportunities to combat the climate challenge. In addition to damaging our domestic economy, Ms. Goodman explained the impact that climate change will have on NATO and defense sectors globally as military infrastructure is threatened and forces must increasingly respond to climate disasters.  She illustrated this vividly by highlighting case studies such as the Arctic and Sub-Saharan Africa where climate change poses particularly pernicious security risks due to phenomena such as ice melt and drought, respectively. In a more positive light, militaries have the opportunity to lead by example, as they are one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters and have the funding to make significant changes to diminish their climate impact. Mr. Hanna summed up the discussion of risks by foreshadowing some of the solutions. For example, supporting cities in their plans to develop clean infrastructure will help develop more sustainable habits and reduce climate risks. Clearly, all of the panelists agreed: given the risks, swift and collaborative action on climate change is a necessity.

Energy Opportunities

With the seriousness of such climate risks comes the need for sobering commitments to serious solutions, another area where business, legislation, and security are able to converge. Renewable energy is one of the solutions that provides hope for slowing global emissions and allowing society to reign in the effects of climate change. Mr. Hanna explained that Google has already committed to operating 24/7 on zero carbon energy resources by the end of the decade. In order to do so, they need the support of a coalition including local governments and energy suppliers in order to establish fully clean energy grids. Congressman Deutch provided insight into a mechanism that has the potential to drive this transition: a price on carbon. Carbon pricing legislation would drive the energy market towards renewable forms while providing benefits to American consumers in the form of dividends, ultimately making renewable energy more accessible and affordable. Sherri Goodman pointed out that, in addition to legislation, military spending can drive the energy market as the security sector seeks out new technologies with immense buying power. For example, the defense sector can play an important role in driving the electric vehicle (EV) market by committing to major purchases that incentivize car manufacturers to make the transition to EVs.

Adaptive and mitigative solutions

Even with incredible energy solutions, we will continue to face the effects of elevated greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere from emissions to date. As we plunge forward into a future world of climate risks and impacts, it is important for private, government, and defense sectors to consider concrete plans for climate adaptation. From a security standpoint, Ms. Goodman explained that technologies designed to improve predictive capabilities in an era of uncertain climate systems will help the military protect civilians and infrastructure from climate impacts such as severe weather. At Google, the Environmental Insights Explorer maps emissions data across buildings and transportation systems alongside solar potential. This platform enables cities to develop climate action plans to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Finally, Congressman Deutch pointed out that the U.S. Congress has fallen behind many local governments in hosting bipartisan conversations about climate adaptation. In areas of the country where the effects of climate change are already being felt, bipartisan collaboration on adaptation and mitigation is simply common sense. In order to adapt on a national and international scale, these collaborative conversations must be scaled up to Congress, NATO, and beyond.

When it comes to working towards a sustainable and secure future, collaboration is key. This includes intersections between business, security, and governmental sectors as discussed during this event, but should also include inputs from the realms of advocacy, education, healthcare, technology, religion, and more. The recently-released NATO Climate Security Action Plan calls for, in the words of Ms. Vivekanada, a “wholesale shift in operations,” for NATO and its member states as they work to secure a peaceful future in the face of serious climate risks. Climate security initiatives for NATO and beyond should be integrative and holistic, including a diversity of sectors in collaboration for the safety and security of our planet.

Elsa Barron and Lily Feldman are interns with the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks.

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