Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

NATO and Climate Change: A Climatized Perspective on Security

| Aug. 18, 2022


The effects of anthropogenic global warming are not only degrading human living conditions and ecosystems but also challenging the security environment. Climate change will bring more competition over scarce resources, the failure of vital infrastructure, and a new geostrategic scenario, among other disruptions. Climate change-related impacts may provoke political unrest and heighten domestic and international tensions. Extreme climate events will multiply security risks and degrade the state’s capabilities to counter them.

Politicians and policymakers must launch effective action to prevent and prepare for the effects of climate change to protect their citizens and their environment. While some uncertainties may remain about climate change and security, we should remember that strategic and military contingency plans are put in place to prepare for possible undesirable scenarios—not just those that are already confirmed.

NATO aspires to take the lead in understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security. The new Strategic Concept declares that climate change is a defining challenge of our time, with a profound impact on Allied security. Now, the Alliance and the Allies must “walk the talk” by preparing to face the emerging climate change-driven challenges and adapting their armed forces to the new climate conditions created by global warming.

This paper will begin by answering the most pressing questions about NATO and climate change: Is climate change a security threat? Does climate security fit into NATO’s mission? And is NATO the best forum to address climate change? It will then review NATO’s current actions on the climate, and finally make some proposals for the Alliance to implement a climatized perspective on security to climate-proof its assets and capacities and effectively accomplish its mission and tasks.

In the 2000s, the war on terror diverted attention from environmental security concerns. During the following decade, focus shifted to the security consequences of the Arab Spring and the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Today, the European security scenario and the post-Cold War international order have been deeply disrupted by Russia’s renewed military aggression against Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Alliance cannot afford to stall in the development of climate security practices.

The Alliance is not a climate change first responder nor should it become one. It does not need to undergo a complete transformation or neglect any of its core tasks. However, it does need to prepare for extreme events induced by climate change, as this is the only way it can accomplish its purpose of preserving peace and security in the years to come.

Executive Summary

NATO must prepare for climate change impacts in order to effectively preserve peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic region. The Alliance does not need to transform under the climate lens; it has substantive assets and capabilities, together with consultation and decision-making mechanisms, to lead the Allies as they confront climate disruptions, a security environment of climate-related instability, and new geostrategic competition.

NATO has already adopted a climatized perspective on security. The Alliance has embraced climate change as a defining challenge with a profound impact on Allied security and as a crisis and threat multiplier, while NATO has adopted the first climate security practices. Yet, NATO must make its efforts more comprehensive and effective to align them with its strong climate discourse. Climate considerations must be mainstreamed in NATO’s core tasks of deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.

On collective defense, the Alliance must climate-proof itself by including climate considerations in situational awareness and in operational and defense planning. Moreover, the Alliance must push for an unprecedented mitigation effort and help the Allies to follow the same path.

Extreme weather events and climate change-related natural disasters will increase the need for peace support and relief operations. The Alliance must confront higher demand for both human and material resources by helping Allies, partners, and other countries to build climate resilience. NATO must also include climate considerations in crisis management planning and execution.

Climate change will be particularly destabilizing for more vulnerable and exposed NATO partners. Cooperative security is the best tool for NATO to help these countries prevent and prepare for climate change-related impacts on their security through political consultation and practical cooperation. NATO must also engage with other international organizations to coordinate efforts rather than duplicate them.

NATO’s efforts should increase climate awareness and literacy among relevant actors via enduring commitment, high visibility, and strong leadership. Climate change should be regarded as an opportunity for NATO to engage with new audiences, especially younger populations, and to work more closely with partners such as the EU, countries from the Southern flank, and non-partner countries like China and the Sahel and Sub-Saharan countries.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: García Rico, Lucía. “NATO and Climate Change: A Climatized Perspective on Security.” , August 18, 2022.

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