NATO’s mandate has expanded considerably since the founding of the organization in 1966, amongst fears of Soviet expansionism. In recent years, NATO has tackled global issues such as piracy, cyber-security, and counter-terrorism. The group has also become somewhat of a ‘go-to’ body for intervention when UN consensus cannot be reached, or when ‘command and control’ capability is required, such as in Kosovo and Libya.
An area in which NATO has been conspicuously silent, perhaps rightly, is that of environmental sustainability. The issue of climate change and environmental sustainability has penetrated the public consciousness over the last few decades, and has become a highly politicized issue in both domestic affairs and international relations.
But should an organization formed to combat common security threats throw its hat into the already contentious, and crowded, ring of climate change policy?
Sustainability as Security
At first glance, climate change may not seem to be under the purview of an organization dedicated to cooperative security. However, as more attention is paid to the effect of humans on the environment, it is clear that ‘environmental security’ is emerging as a facet of the greater security discourse. Environmental security can be viewed as a component of strategic defense planning in several ways.
When we think of scarce resources, we tend to think of oil, diamonds, gold, etc. – natural resources that are turned into consumer products and enter the flow of global supply and demand. These resources are certainly very relevant in both a security and economic context. However, it is useful, and becoming necessary, to think of water, arable land, and indeed the air itself, as scarce resources. These resources are unique in two senses. One, they are literally pillars for survival in much of the developing world. Two, they are common property resources with no respect for national borders.
Whether we are talking about oil and gas, water, or any other scarce natural resource, scarcity creates tension between groups that are in competition for those resources. In many cases, a scarcity of arable land or uncontaminated water leads to an increase in refugees or IDP’s (internally displaced persons) as populations leave their homes in search of greener pastures (literally). Higher numbers of displaced persons lead to tensions both within and between countries as the question of responsibility for refugees is debated.
The problems stemming from a scarcity of resources are hardly new ones. What IS new is that the concepts of climate change and sustainability have become steeped in the social consciousness of the west in the last few decades. Every politician has a stance on sustainability; almost every multilateral conference mentions climate change in some fashion.
But why should NATO care? Most people are familiar with NATO as an organization founded to combat the collective security concerns of its members. Perhaps less well known is the “Article Two” mandate of NATO – the section of the NATO Charter that encourages economic cooperation and collaboration between allies.
NATO has already prioritized energy security, but the organization needs to generate a broader sustainability discourse amongst members states.
It is within this context that climate change and environmental sustainability are linked to NATO’s work. There are obvious strategic concerns that result from a warming world. For example, as the polar ice cap melts and the Northwest Passage opens, a whole new side of North America is open and vulnerable. The formation of new shipping lanes may well create a diplomatic standoff as the ownership of these shipping lanes is debated. Access to northern shipping lanes are crucial not just for Arctic nations, as the ability to use alternative shipping lanes is important to those on the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, both hotspots of piracy.
There is also a role for NATO beyond that of reactionary involvement in changing geography resulting from climate change. As the nations of the world remain only weakly committed to sustainability initiatives, the effects of climate change will be exponentially felt as temperatures rise. More extreme rainfall patterns will lead to more floods and droughts, resulting in uncertain crop yields and more intense competition for already scarce resources; this will exacerbate societal inequalities and social grievances, providing the perfect breeding ground for conflict. As NATO has already set a precedent of getting involved in conflicts outside of its member countries’ borders, it would be prudent for NATO to develop strategies for involvement in conflicts that may arise in an environmental context. By understanding the origins of potential security threats, NATO can build alliances and local relationships before violence breaks out.
NATO has already prioritized energy security, but the organization needs to generate a broader sustainability discourse amongst members states; both inter-military and civil-military cooperation is needed to tackle a problem as global and indiscriminate as climate change. As NATO gets further away from the Cold War environment that birthed its original, hard security mandate, the institution has run up against the indivisibility of security from civil society. In order to deploy its resources efficiently, there must be an effort to enhance NATO’s role as a consultative body beyond short-term security concerns. Climate change does not respect territorial boundaries and so affects NATO member countries and allies alike. NATO has the chance to contribute to the discussion of environmental sustainability from a unique perspective; it should not let this opportunity slip by.