NATO and Climate Change

Climate change presents security challenges of a magnitude and a complexity we have never seen before. Preparing for it is not a choice -- it is an urgent necessity.
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Some may wonder why NATO would be interested in climate change. To me, this is a bit like asking why a person would be interested in a change in gravity. While gravity does not dictate what you choose to do at any given moment, it does tend to push all your choices in a common direction -- down. In a similar way, I venture, while climate change will not dictate what some nation-states choose to do, it will push them in a common direction: towards increased instability. For that reason, we must recognize that reducing emissions is not only an environmental imperative, but a security imperative.

Even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow, we expect that by 2040 there will still be a 2 degrees C rise in temperatures. Such a relatively modest increase will likely bring about desertification, water shortages, ocean acidification, and a drastic loss of biodiversity. It will also lead to greater competition for resources, provoke disputes over territory and farm land, spark food crises, spur migration, and hasten the collapse of fragile states. Summers like Europe's in 2003, when thousands died, could occur with frightening regularity. And this is the best case scenario.

Scientists tell us that if we do nothing and allow emissions to rise unchecked, then it is possible that global temperatures could rise 3 to 6 degrees C before the end of this century. Unlike previous hot periods in Earth history, these changes will not occur over thousands or millions of years -- when life had time to adapt - but over decades. This would be truly dangerous territory, in part because we do not know what exactly would result.

But we do know that climate change of any sort will have a "multiplier" effect upon pre-existing tensions in the Middle East, Africa, Indo-China, and elsewhere -- and the greater the temperature rise, the greater the multiplier. Environmental problems could be dwarfed by the economic and political consequences of severe desertification, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and mass migrations.

In sum, climate change presents security challenges of a magnitude and a complexity we have never seen before. We must be prepared for them. At the same time, we must do what we can to avoid worst-case scenarios, and curbing CO2 emissions must be a political priority for every government and industry in the world.

Since no single government can confront climate change on its own, we must aspire to a new quality of global governance by taking a fresh look at our institutions. Can they cope with the additional burden that climate change would place on them? How could they adapt to perform better? Could we build new ties between them, so that they could combine their comparative advantages for maximum effect?

NATO's policy on climate change has yet to be fully developed, and I must stress that these are my own personal thoughts. But in my view, NATO's involvement in dealing with climate change can be summed up by three words: consultation, adaptation, and operation.

Consultation means that we must put the consequences of climate change on NATO's agenda while intensifying dialogues with other institutions, NGOs, and the scientific community. I personally envisage NATO as a clearing house for the security-related challenges of climate change. NATO's ties with countries and institutions across the globe make the Alliance ideally suited for such a role. At present, such a forum does not exist, and we need it.

Adaptation means NATO must adapt to the security implications of climate change by seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of our forces. National Air Forces, for example, are among the biggest energy consumers and polluters. Fuel efficient vehicles also make sense from a military perspective: 70% of supplies are fuel, so the less fuel you need to supply, the easier logistical support will be.

Finally, operation means recognizing that NATO may be called upon to address the consequences of climate change directly. The military is often the "first responder" to natural disasters. We saw this in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and floods that more recently struck Eastern Europe. The Alliance has a wealth of experience in deploying capabilities with other nations and helping other international organizations develop their own expertise for dealing with disasters. While we must not forget our primary purpose as a defense organization, I have urged the Allies to consider how NATO can optimise its contribution in these areas.

This week, I will visit Copenhagen to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Some may charge the Alliance with trying to broaden its remit. But dealing with the security implications of climate change is not a choice. It is an urgent necessity. Debates about the remit of this institution or another are a luxury we can no longer afford. To deal with climate change, we will need all our institutions to perform at their very best, and NATO is ready to do its part.

In the meantime, please feel free to visit my blog. I also hope you enjoy the brief video below, "NATO and climate change."

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