The new push in NATO, which was approved by the alliance’s foreign ministers on Tuesday at a meeting at headquarters in Brussels, signals a major shift in the organization, which has traditionally shielded from threats from Russia and other political actors around the world.
Now, NATO will also try to incorporate a different kind of risk into its work, as climate change overturns old security assumptions and creates new risks for democratic societies. Stoltenberg, a former UN special envoy on climate change, said he hopes leaders will use a summit later this year to pledge to make their militaries carbon-neutral by 2050.
“Climate change is a complicating factor of the crisis,” Stoltenberg said in an interview. “Climate change will lead to more severe weather, droughts and floods, forcing people to move, and more fierce competition for scarce resources, water and land.”
For some time, militaries have included thinking about climate change in their planning, especially in terms of how to create new security risks and threaten their physical infrastructure. But a truly broad focus on a whole host of climate and security issues has been scarce, particularly a push involving an effort to eliminate their emissions.
The divide is in part a reflection of the competing cultures. Climate change activists and experts tend not to get deeply involved in military issues. Typically, military officers focus on operational readiness above all else. This can lead to blind spots: Militaries control large swaths of land, for example, but are lagging behind in thinking about sustainable land management.
Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, is somehow an extraordinary person who connects the two worlds. Early in his career he was the number two man in the Environment Ministry in his country. Much of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle, and some of the glaciers that Stoltenberg visited in his youth have now largely dried up.
He said, “You see the ice melting.”
His focus on climate issues was enabled by President Biden’s rise to power after four years of President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and has threatened to pull the United States out of NATO altogether.
In the United States, the Biden administration raised the issue of climate change as a national security priority, reviving the Obama era’s focus on the impact of man-made changes on the environment.
In the Pentagon, he created Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin High-Level Task Force on Climate Change He said the Department of Defense would incorporate climate change into military planning and war games. In another shift, the Pentagon appears likely to integrate climate change into its updated national defense strategy.
The impacts of climate change pose special challenges to the US military, with its sprawling global reach and security mission sometimes linked to climate-related instability.
Military installations around the world, including the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, the US Naval Academy in Maryland, and the long-range radar station Cape Lisburn in Alaska are already being affected by floods, droughts and extreme temperatures that scientists have linked to climate change. Other facilities, such as Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, were hit hard by hurricanes or wildfires.
Norfolk – home to the world’s largest offshore facility – is a particularly exciting example. Thanks to rising sea levels and changing ocean tides, floods are a constant feature of life there, even when it’s not raining. Sometimes residents cannot move because the roads are covered with water. Sea water regularly seeps into pipelines and other infrastructure.
The former president’s hostility to environmental issues put Pentagon leaders in a dilemma as they sought to respond to the effects of a warming climate, while turning away from a politically charged debate about its causes.
Most of the time, they did so by avoiding explicit signals that could irritate the White House. One Defense Department report was written during the Obama administration, for example, It was changed during the Trump era To remove most references to climate change, rather than just “extreme weather” or “climate”, before it is presented to Congress in 2018.
Meanwhile, officials continued to make plans under Trump to address the impact of sea level rise on military installations, while military commanders spoke of the need to respond to insecurity that is partly fueled by climate change in places like Syria.
Stoltenberg notes that green armies can also create opportunities. For example, tanker trucks filled with fuel haul along risky roads toward military installations in Afghanistan and Iraq are among the most serious weaknesses of deployments in those countries. He said installing solar panels, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and increasing the independence of those bases as much as possible could save lives.
Biden’s climate envoy, John F. Kerry, met in Stoltenberg in Brussels earlier this month.
Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken embraced Stoltenberg’s climate push on Tuesday, saying, “We share the vision of the Secretary-General of NATO who has the power to deter and defend all kinds of threats to our collective security, including threats such as climate change.”
Even basic discussions can lead to a cultural shift. Historically, militaries have been a major driver of technological change, as the Pentagon research arm is best known for inventing the precursor to the Internet. Experts said that in terms of adaptation to climate change, this was not the case.
One of the key challenges: the carbon footprints of national militaries tend not to be universal, making it difficult to even diagnose the magnitude of this aspect of the business.
One recent analysis by the Observatory for Conflict and Environment, a British-based advocacy group, found that the military and defense industry accounted for about 1.6 percent of Britain’s national carbon footprint, 1 percent of France, 0.8 percent of Spain, and 0.5 percent of Germany and Italy. The report, which was commissioned by a European political party that supports disarmament and cuts in defense spending, acknowledged the difficulty of making this estimate. It did not include figures for the United States.
“This is a sector that has been kept out of trouble so far” on climate issues, said Louise van Scheic, head of the European Union unit and global affairs at Clingendael, a Dutch think tank for international affairs. “In the climate change community, there wasn’t much awareness about the scale of emissions from the military.”
Stoltenberg said NATO’s climate effort must span everywhere from reducing emissions to preparing for more challenges in the Arctic to designing a uniform to help soldiers withstand temperatures of up to 120 degrees in Iraq. This, he said, could lead to the slowly phasing out of fossil fuel engines from military vehicles.
He said, “We have to be radical in our way of thinking.” “It would be very strange that we end up in a world where we hardly have any fossil fuel vehicles in civil society and we have fossil fuel vehicles in the armed forces.”