Maintaining Transatlantic Security in the Face of Climate Change


By Elena Sofia Massacesi, Core Writers’ Group

The 2022 Madrid Summit introduced NATO’s recognition of climate change as a major security threat to the alliance in the future. Though NATO cannot impose binding targets on its members, it aims to help the Allies reduce their military’s emissions. The Allies recognise climate change’s dangers both through direct impacts and by exacerbating effects on pre-existing conflicts.

Climate change and security

Traditional international relations theory does not categorise climate change as a threat to security, only deeming environmental issues worthy of attention if they impede access to the resources needed for military defence. As a result, states have historically separated environmental issues from security issues. We have now entered a new era where climate change threatens global security, with states beginning to acknowledge this threat. Extreme weather events caused by a changing climate lead to increasingly higher rates of displacement — over three times higher than displacement caused by conflict. Along with the human security concerns, this increased internal displacement severely complicates the logistics of military operations in the regions.

Most importantly, climate change exacerbates conflicts in regions that are conflict-prone or more susceptible to violence. Not only does it increase the likelihood of conflict breaking out due to increased scarcity of resources, but locations with higher poverty rates, inequality, and unstable or failed governance see a link between climate-related stress and an increase in violence. The opposite of this relationship is also true: investing in climate change relief can help reduce upstream conflict. This is because the relationship between climate change and conflict is cyclical: weather events make it more difficult to resolve conflict, and conflict severely undermines nations’ ability to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Tackling climate change through both mitigation and adaptation measures would help improve national security, especially for women and children.

NATO’s Security Concept

States increasingly use their military to help solve climate change related disasters: their rapid response capabilities are crucial for responding to crises; however, some NATO commanders are starting to worry that the use of the armed forces detracts from traditional war-fighting capacities. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events also pose a direct threat to NATO’s military bases and the resilience of their equipment, as salinity in the oceans and hotter temperatures degrade materials faster — and as such NATO cannot lose its technological assets, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine War. The War has also brought energy security to the forefront of the Alliance’s agenda. NATO must therefore bridge the gap between this need for energy, the global green transition, and the threats of climate change on energy security.

In their previous Strategic Concept, NATO mentioned climate change only in one sentence. The 2022 document marks a significant shift: the Alliance dedicated two articles to the relationship between climate change and security. NATO aims to help the Allies reduce their military’s emissions by at least 45% by 2030, with the goal of hitting net-zero by 2050. The military is a significant contributor to climate change, especially due to the supply chain process, so this target is an important first step forward. The Alliance cannot set binding commitments for the bloc, but it can provide a framework for states to follow. The Alliance provided a methodology for measuring both military and civilian greenhouse gas emissions, and it set up two programs to invest in technological innovation. The Innovation Fund is focused on helping early-stage start-ups, with the aim of both reducing NATO’s carbon footprint through green tech and gaining a competitive advantage over rivals. The Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) will complement the Fund by focusing on bridging the gap between these new technologies and the military across the whole Alliance.

Transatlantic Shift

NATO’s new Strategic Concept reflects a decisive shift from the rest of the global stage: States now acknowledge climate change as a threat to security interests, due to its impacts on conflict and instability. The Alliance is taking action by setting an agenda that pushes its members to focus their military efforts to be greener, and its investments in technology may help it adopt carbon footprint-reducing technology without sacrificing its military edge.

Elena Sofia Massacesi is part of the European Horizons Core Writer’s team. She currently studies Politics and International Relations at University College London (UCL). Her areas of interest include climate change policy, democracy in Europe, and global migration.



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