Since its founding in 1949, the core organizing principle of NATO has remained the same: collective defense. An attack against one is an attack against all. Article 5, which articulates this principle, has famously only been invoked once, in the wake of 9/11. Today, however, some of the biggest security risks facing the Alliance do not come from states or organizations alone, but instead from transnational, actorless threats like climate change and pandemics. What does collective defense mean in the face of increased extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and surging sea levels? More importantly, how do these climate change effects exacerbate or contribute to other security risks facing NATO, whether the rise of geopolitics in the Arctic, political instability in the Middle East and North Africa, or the increasing need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief within Alliance members themselves?
These questions are not completely new to NATO. In fact, NATO has long been a leader amongst global security institutions in addressing the climate-security nexus, integrating the risks posed by climate change and environmental stress into its 2010 Strategic Concept. Since Jens Stoltenberg took the helm as NATO’s Secretary General in 2014, the Alliance has accelerated its efforts to address these risks. Stoltenberg has rightly pushed for the adoption of a NATO-wide climate security strategy, arguing that, “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. As the planet heats up, our weather becomes wilder, warmer, windier and wetter, putting communities under pressure as sources of food, fresh water and energy are threatened … It is essential that we adapt to this new reality.” To that end, in March 2021 at a NATO ministerial meeting the Alliance agreed to pursue a strategy aimed at increasing NATO’s ability to “understand, adapt and mitigate the security impact of climate change.”
The task now is to take this high-level strategic push and translate it into sustained, long-term action. Doing so will require steady leadership toward building political consensus, as well as a concrete demonstration for NATO member states that tackling the issue together will not only mitigate climate security risks but also complement action to address other threats, saving money and resources in the long run. As the economic strains from the COVID-19 pandemic endure, questions of burden-sharing within the Alliance are likely to remain contentious. Some also warn that NATO should not become an “all-purpose alliance” that loses its focus. Given these dynamics, any proposals perceived as expanding the Alliance’s core mission without justification, or as not benefiting all member states, may face opposition from some Allies.