Last month, emboldened by a new climate-conscious U.S. president, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced his intention to make climate change a centerpiece of the military alliance’s strategic planning. As he told reporters: “Climate change is a crisis multiplier” that “will lead to more extreme weather, to droughts and to flooding, force people to move, to more fierce competition about scarce resources, water, and land.” The Biden administration embraced Stoltenberg’s climate push, which followed a meeting between the NATO head and Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry.
The problem? So far, the details of this new climate focus are sparse, and it seems unlikely that it will require a binding commitment from NATO members. Without an enforceable mechanism, words are only words. Fortunately, NATO already has codified commitments in place that cover existential threats to its members. Look no further than Article Five, NATO’s storied collective defense clause, which states that an attack against one member is an attack against all and thus will be met with a collective response.
At what point will NATO members recognize climate change as an assault on their shared security and invoke Article Five against it? Now would be a great time.
President Joe Biden has breathed new life into the push for a global climate response, ending four years of denial under President Donald Trump. Still, the current friendly U.N.-centric approach to climate cooperation has proven incapable of affecting the necessary changes. Multinational, complementing and significant measures must be taken to reach the Paris Accord goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Climate change is, and must be recognized as, a nontraditional attack on NATO nations. After all, what many acts of terrorism or war cause, climate change causes as well. It leads to destabilization, food shortages, economic turmoil and dangerous refugee crises. It threatens numerous U.S. and allied military bases with flooding and severe weather. And according to a panel of experts convened in 2019, climate change will increase future risks of armed conflict. For example, Syria’s internal conflict has worsened as a result of drought and desertification.
Climate change is an international security crisis of unprecedented magnitude, and NATO is uniquely positioned to respond quickly and effectively to just such a crisis. So what would a common climate defense under Article Five look like?
First, by invoking Article Five, Stoltenberg would have newfound ability to enforce the climate initiatives he previewed last month, such as reductions in allied military emissions, preparations for a changing Arctic landscape and new uniforms to help soldiers withstand 120-degree heat in Iraq.
NATO allies can also agree to gather and share data for determining proactive and responsive strategies. NATO can commit resources to evaluate different climate change scenarios and their likely outcomes across a full spectrum of global concerns. They can use that information to help mitigate crises before they happen and ameliorate them when they do.
Added to this, NATO has a tremendous capacity to deploy, especially with its high-readiness Response Force, which is trained in crisis management, disaster relief, protecting critical infrastructure and peace support. It can send teams to hot spots where major climate events manifest to pre-empt tragedy by addressing food and water shortages, protecting and building infrastructure and providing security forces to stave off dangerous destabilization.
It is not unusual for nations to deploy their military during natural disasters. For instance, when I was in Montserrat working on an active volcano, the British Army stepped in to help after an eruption destroyed the port and main town. But we need to act proactively and at a global scale before the event happens. While a volcano is not a result of climate change, NATO can engineer similar solutions to water shortages and boost resilience for high-risk coastal and mountain regions.
Article Five was written at the dawn of a new era of existential threats brought by nuclear weapons. But today, the most pressing existential threat facing NATO is the fury of manmade climate change. It is an enemy that cannot be bombed out of existence. If the alliance wishes to avoid worsening destabilization, it must wield the mechanism of Article Five to attack this threat at its source. Anything less would only be words.
Dr. Deborah Brosnan is the founder of Brosnan & Associates.
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