Scoping NATO’s Environmental Security Agenda

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Image courtesy of Lisa Ferdinando/DVIDS.

This article was originally published by NATO Defense College in March 2020.

Environmental change1 is increasingly recognised as one of the major factors that will shape the global security environment. According to most experts, rising global temperatures will lead to rising sea levels and cause more extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, droughts and wildfires.2 The firestorms that engulfed parts of Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, burning an area the size of Belgium and Denmark combined, and severely decimating that continent’s wildlife, were a stark reminder of the force of these changes.

While the causal relationship between environmental change and conflict is difficult to establish, there have been arguably several conflicts where environmental change has acted as a trigger, notably Darfur and Somalia. Even the beginning of the Arab Spring has been related to environmental change: unrest erupted because of increasing food prices, which in turn were the result of several bad harvests attributed to climate change.3 In general, there is a widely held assumption that environmental change could lead to food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, mass migration, and humanitarian disasters.

Environmental changes will also influence the way in which military forces conduct their missions. For example, the military could be called upon more often to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Other consequences for the military are the vulnerability of coastal installations to rising sea levels and the impact of floods, wildfires, and more extreme temperatures on military exercises and supply chains. Finally, as climatic changes open up regions hitherto largely closed to human activity (e.g. the Artic) the military will need to operate in these challenging environments.

NATO is not the first responder to climate change. This role is played by other international bodies, in particular those who can set limits on CO2 emissions. However, as the premier transatlantic security and defence organization, NATO would seem an appropriate forum for discussing the security implications of environmental change. After all, NATO offers a seamless continuum of political consultation and decision-making, military planning and military implementation.

In addition, through its various committees and agencies NATO is covering many non-military, security-related subjects that range from intelligence sharing to civil emergency planning, and from environmental to medical issues. Moreover, as a democratic Alliance NATO is answerable to public concerns, in particular if these concerns have a genuine security dimension.

NATO’s environmental security “acquis”

In NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept, Allies for the first time acknowledged that “[k]ey environmental and resource constraints, including health risks, climate change, water scarcity and increasing energy needs will further shape the future security environment and have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations”.4 This formulation already hinted at two distinct dimensions of environmental security: as a “threat multiplier” that generates new security challenges or aggravates existing ones, and as a phenomenon that impacts on the nature and conduct of NATO’s military operations.5 Both dimensions lead to different conclusions. While the first puts the onus on prevention and mitigation, the second puts the emphasis on (military) adaptation. Given NATO’s nature as a political-military alliance, its emphasis will inevitably lie on adaptation. However, as a closer look at NATO’s environmental security activities reveals, the Alliance’s agenda also encompasses some preventive elements. Three major areas can be identified: Strategic Awareness, the Military Dimension, and Cooperative Security.

Strategic awareness

Strategic Analysis. The security implications of environmental change in terms of climate-induced geopolitical, economic and military shifts are already dealt with in Allied consultations and intelligence-sharing. Moreover, certain NATO Committees in the Civil Emergency Planning domain have been dealing with, inter alia, extreme weather conditions, pandemics, and disaster relief. Also, the Secretary General’s Policy Planning Unit and the Emerging Security Challenges Division are promoting a dialogue with climate experts. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation is conducting work related to the security implications of environmental change through its regular Strategic Foresight Analysis and the Framework for Future Alliance Operations. Finally, the NATO Strategic Direction-South Hub is also undertaking studies on environmental change, notably with a focus on the African continent.

Policies and Standards on Environmental Protection. Since the 1970s NATO developed environmental protection guidelines and standards, resulting in an overarching policy (MC469, agreed in 2003). The implementation of this policy is supported by a number of NATO standards, for example on waste management, water treatment and best practice for camps. Furthermore, NATO’s “Policy on Power Generation for Deployed Force Infrastructure” has a strong focus on saving fossil fuel. The rationale of these efforts is both military and political: mission success requires ensuring the public acceptance of deployed NATO forces in the host country. This requires these forces to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the well-being of the local population, including by protecting their environment.

Education, Training, and Exercises. The need to prepare for operations in a changing environment is also reflected in NATO’s education and training efforts. Some training tools already exist, for example the Norway-based NATO Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Cold Weather Operations. ln addition to CoEs, national education and training facilities as well as the NATO School in Oberammergau are conducting environmental protection courses that sensitise soldiers and civilians with the stringent requirements for operating deployed camps, protecting cultural property, etc. NATO’s education and training efforts are constantly being adapted to changing needs and requirements. If considered politically and/or militarily desirable, training courses could be devised that focus specifically on climate-related threats and responses.

Likewise, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) is regularly conducting consequence management field exercises involving dozens of Allies and partner countries. The scenarios, some of which are based on environmental challenges faced by the host nations, are designed to strengthen the ability of teams from different nations to cooperate across a wide range of relief operations. These include urban search and rescue, emergency medical teams, as well as detection, protection and decontamination teams. Compared with traditional military exercises, they are smaller (up to 2,000 personnel) and performed in close cooperation with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), which retains the primary role in the coordination of international disaster relief operations.

The military dimension

Operational Planning and Defence Procurement. As Allies acknowledged in the Strategic Concept, climate change and other developments could impact NATO’s operational planning. The Pentagon has repeatedly noted that rising sea levels may impact the execution of amphibious landings; changing temperatures lengthening the arid season could impact operation timing windows; and the increased frequency of extreme weather could limit surveillance and reconnaissance measures.6 Environmental change can also affect military bases (e.g. a rise in the sea level could render important hubs like Diego Garcia unusable). More hostile climatic conditions could also affect both the service life and the maintenance requirements of military equipment (for example, adding dust filters to protect the engines of military vehicles will limit their range and performance). Finally, changing climatic conditions could also lead some Allies to invest in a different force structure, e.g. emphasising helicopters, coast guard vessels and amphibious vehicles over other equipment.

Energy Efficiency in the Military. The high fuel demand of combat forces can diminish their performance, increase their vulnerability, and may require the diverting of combat forces to protect supply lines. Hence, in-creased energy efficiency could offer benefits in terms of combat power and agility. NATO’s own work in this regard focuses on reducing the consumption of fossil fuel in deployed force infrastructure (i.e. camps), resulting in more autonomy, a lesser logistical burden and a smaller environmental footprint.7 In early 2014, Allies agreed the “Green Defence Framework”, which sought to bring various internal work strands in NATO closer together in order to create synergies and improve NATO’s “green” profile.8 In addition, questions related to national energy efficiency measures have been included in NATO’s Defence Planning Capability Survey. All these measures are undertaken with military effectiveness in mind. However, there is widespread agreement that a reduced energy footprint of certain military activities offers the additional advantage of demonstrating to a broader public that the military is not indifferent to environmental concerns.

Consequence Management. While humanitarian relief missions are not considered a core task of NATO, the Alliance has been involved in such missions on several occasions, starting in 1991 to protect the Kurdish population in Northern lraq (“Provide Comfort”); in the aftermath of a severe earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 (where NATO delivered almost 3,500 tons of relief supplies); and after Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005. The Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre also coordinated national assistance on many other occasions (floods, mudflows, wildfires) in Allied and partner countries (e.g. Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Algeria, Moldova). Noticeably, thus far, the NATO Response Force, which had initially been conceived as the flagship of NATO’s military transformation, has mostly been deployed in humanitarian relief efforts.

Cooperative Security

Environmental security as a partnership tool. The partnership dimensions of addressing environmental security risks are several-fold. First, as environmental change affects many partner countries, they will be interested in scientific cooperation with NATO on mitigation measures, but also on consequence management, training and education. Past examples of such scientific cooperation encompassed measures on flood control in Ukraine and preventing desertification in Egypt. Second, helping partner countries build the capacity and resilience to better manage environmental impacts could become a legitimate element in NATO’s Defence Capacity Building approach. Finally, as humanitarian relief oper-ations involve many other international organizations and NGOs, they provide a strong rationale for deepening NATO’s ties with all prospective actors, thereby underlining NATO’s inclusive and comprehensive approach to security.

Scientific Cooperation. NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme has a long tradition of addressing environmental concerns. Its predecessor, the “Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society”, looked at the challenge of environmental degradation as far back as the late 1960s. Today, SPS brings together scientists from Allied and partner countries, has supported numerous workshops and multi-year projects linked to security issues arising from key environmental and resource constraints, as well as disaster forecasting and the prevention of natural catastrophes, and defence-related environmental issues. Allies’ interest in supporting projects on environmental security has waned in the recent past. Still, SPS remains an important resource for NATO to support workshops and training courses with military and civilian experts addressing geophysical, meteorological and atmospheric/ space-weather phenomena that have an effect on military capabilities.

The delicate path ahead

As this non-exhaustive list of NATO’s activities demonstrates, the Alliance is already coping with the consequences of environmental change on various levels. Hence, giving this dossier greater emphasis and visibility appears feasible. This could entail, first and foremost, revisiting the aforementioned “Green Defence Framework”, seeking to operationalise its various suggestions in areas such as energy efficiency measures and the sharing of best practices, and perhaps even considering “the applicability of ‘green’ standards and principles across the NATO HQ, NATO Command Structure and NATO Agencies, and […] the applicability of setting up ‘green’ accounting and benchmarks to measure progress”.9 Allies could also support more scientific research projects through NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme, seek to elevate the role of environmental security in its dialogue and cooperation with partner countries, enhance NATO’s presence at climate-related events, and initiate a more robust public diplomacy effort. However, simply producing more public statements on the importance of environmental security will not be enough. Successfully raising NATO’s visibility in this domain will depend on a number of important factors.

Allied consensus

First, as environmental change touches upon many Allied sensitivities, great care needs to be taken to establish and sustain consensus on this subject. One reason why the 2010 Strategic Concept did not lead to a stronger focus on environmental security was the hesitation of many Allies to become engaged in a subject that could upset the balance of interest in certain regions (e.g. the High North) or risks degenerating into a controversial debate about national environmental or energy policies. In the same vein, Allies’ interest in using the SPS Programme to support scientific projects related to environmental security proved rather uneven in the past, with some Allies questioning whether NATO was the appropriate framework for sponsoring such efforts. In short, without proper handling, these diverging views could quickly re-surface. Hence, all Allies must be reassured that a more visible NATO role in climate and environmental issues will not be detrimental to their national (security) interests.

A plausible narrative

Second, given NATO’s nature as a political-military Alliance, for any NATO narrative on environmental security to be credible, it should be focussed predominantly on consequence management and less on prevention – where NATO’s role is comparatively small. While this may clash with the public sense of urgency about the need to slow down or even arrest environmental change, NATO’s major contribution to security remains in employing its military competence as a “force for good”, be it through deterring major war or offering humanitarian assistance after natural disasters. This contribution to international peace and stability is what makes NATO unique. Hence, any attempt to give NATO more visibility in the environmental field must take care not to send conflicting messages. With public expectations set on mitigation and prevention, Allies must not allow a view to take hold that they have concluded that mitigation efforts will fail and that NATO therefore had to prepare for the worst. At the same time, neither should they give the impression that a stronger focus by NATO on environmental security means moving away from its core business of military deterrence and defence.

Expectation management

Third, given the highly emotional and at times outright apocalyptic nature of the current debate on environmental change, Allies must resist any temptation to cater to the wilder shores of this debate. After all, irrespective of public expectations regarding reduced greenhouse emissions, the military (notably air forces) will remain a major polluter.10 Stressing NATO’s “greening” efforts is a genuinely positive message, all the more so as it would tie in with the logic of other initiatives, such as the EU’s new “Green Deal”, which aims for the Union to become climate-neutral by 2050. However, its military focus will not allow NATO to formulate similarly ambitious goals. Militaries will have to focus on operational effectiveness, with environmental concerns playing a growing, yet secondary role. Overselling NATO’s contribution to environmental security would run the risk of breeding disappointment or even outright resentment, with hardcore climate activists denouncing such efforts as mere political window-dressing. In short, in discussing environmental security NATO must not be apologetic. Environmental and military security are both of existential importance; they must not be pitted against each other.

Conclusion: setting the stage for a more visible role in environmental security

The international discussion on environmental change is now becoming a legitimate part of the security debate. While NATO is not going to be a major factor in the environmental debate, its elevated role in international security demands that it be more than merely a dispassionate observer of that debate. If NATO can demonstrate that in implementing its core mission of deterrence and defence it is conscious of environmental concerns, and that its national militaries have understood the need to make their own contribution, the stage could be set for a more visible role in environmental security. Even if modest, such a more visible role in environmental security would help align NATO with a challenge that a growing number of people are regarding as a major security concern.

This article was published under a Creative Common “Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs” Licence. (CC BY-NC-ND)


1 Although the term “climate change” is more commonly used, it is politically charged, as it is closely connected with the question of whether it is a man-made phenomenon. Hence, this paper mostly uses the term “environmental change”, as it is also more comprehensive.

2 See International Military Council on Climate and Security, The World Climate and Security Report 2020, February 2020.

3 See S. Johnstone and J. Mazo, “Global Warming and the Arab Spring”, Survival, April/May 2011, pp.11-17. 4 NATO’s Strategic Concept, 2010, para.15.

5 See also T. H. Lippert, NATO, climate change and international security: a risk governance approach, Palgrave MacMillan, 2019.

6 See the numerous examples listed in: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, “Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense”, Washington, DC, January 2019.

7 For a selection of documents and other information on Allies’ and NATO’s work on “smart energy” see the “Smart Energy LibGuide” at

8 Green Defence Framework, February 2014, http://www.natolibguides. info/ld.php?content_id=25285072. Given the novelty of some of the issues addressed in that paper, its rather hesitant tone should not come as a surprise. However, it was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and NATO’s subsequent re-emphasis on collective defence that prevented a more systematic pursuit of the paper’s various innovative elements.

9 Green Defence Framework, 2014, para.10.

10 For a typical example see T. Lorincz, “NATO is a threat to the climate”, Ricochet, 29 December 2019.

About the Author

Michael Rühle is Head, Energy Security Section, in the Emerging Security Challenges Division in NATO’s International Staff.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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