Last week, the 30 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member States released two important security documents: the Brussels Summit Communiqué as well as a Climate Change and Security Action Plan. The Communiqué reaffirmed NATO’s pledge to its founding document, the 1951 Washington Treaty and stated that it is “firmly committed” to the treaty’s critical Article 5 collective self-defense provision. Article 5 bonds each NATO member together, explicitly stating that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies. This Communique represented a welcome departure from the former Administration’s approach to NATO, which failed to even reaffirm the United States’ historic commitment to Article 5.

In addition, the Communiqué also reinvigorated NATO’s approach to climate change, characterizing climate as a security “threat multiplier” and “one of the defining challenges of our times.” In doing so, the Communiqué endorsed NATO’s new Action Plan on Climate Change and Security, which was released the same day. This pithy but powerful plan — just three pages – expressly acknowledges climate change’s role in state political fragility, conflict, displacement, and migration. It also specified four specific action items to keep an eye on:

  1. Awareness: Increase climate awareness among allies via an annual Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment.
  2. Adaptation: Adapt to climate change by incorporating climate change considerations into its work on many areas to include defense planning, training and exercises, and disaster response.
  3. Mitigation: Mitigate NATO’s contribution of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by developing a novel “mapping and analytical methodology” for GHG emissions from military activities and installations.
  4. Outreach: Enhance outreach with a broad swath of climate-partners to include international and regional organizations, the United Nations, EU, academia, and industry.

NATO’s Climate Action Plan reinforces NATO’s commitment to prepare for the climate-security century. As I have previously argued, the future will increasingly be shaped by climate change’s destabilizing impacts — a vision now clearly shared by all 30 NATO members. NATO’s Brussels Communiqué and Climate Action Plan represent welcome, forward-looking steps on climate change. NATO’s focus on climate change is also completely aligned with President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategy, a key, strategic-level national security planning document where “climate” is mentioned 27 times.

Despite these bold pronouncements, questions remain on translating NATO’s bold, strategic climate initiatives into action. As NATO implements the Action Plan, I highlight three questions to help focus our collective attention.

1. How Does the NATO Climate Plan Translate into NATO Arctic Operations?

While the NATO Climate Plan does not explicitly mention the Arctic (a missed opportunity, in my opinion), the Plan should nevertheless signal a shift in NATO’s approach to the rapidly changing Arctic operational environment. Due to climate change, scientists estimate that the Arctic is warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world. That pace appears to be accelerating, due to a pernicious feedback melting loop. There even remains the possibility of an ice-free Arctic summer by 2035. This massive melt is opening new navigational trade routes for civilian and military vessels through the Northwest Passage (through Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (along the Russian coastline). Vessels are now increasingly able to transit once impenetrable waterways and are beginning to assess the risks of other historic routes, such as the crowded — and sometimes blocked — Suez Canal. Climate change is also renewing the possibility of natural resource extraction on each Arctic coastal state’s continental shelf. An estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas lies on the Arctic seabed.

Russia and China are both investing in this new, climate-transformed Arctic. Both have recently invested heavily in the Arctic. And China recently declared itself a “near Arctic state” despite residing over 1,800 miles from the Arctic Circle.

In the absence of an Arctic Treaty, the bulk of the international Arctic governance work falls to the eight-member Arctic Council, where NATO Allies are heavily represented. Under the Arctic Council’s founding document, the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, military security matters remain outside the Council’s express jurisdiction. This is particularly significant for NATO due to a High North geo-political twist: four of the five Arctic coastal states (the United States, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, and Canada) are all NATO charter members and original signatories to the 1951 Washington Treaty. Russia, whose continental shelf claims in the Arctic extend to the North Pole, can exert some level of control over roughly half of the Arctic Ocean. The NATO member states have authority for natural resource extraction over the other half.

The Arctic is heating up, literally and militarily. In recent years, Russia has invested heavily in an aggressive Arctic militarization campaign. Russia also possesses operational capabilities that far exceed the United States and its NATO allies. By one account, Russia has 50 ice breakers (some nuclear powered) while the United States has just two. In recent years, Russia has stated that it views the Northern Sea Route (NSR) — which hugs its coastline — as a “historically developed national transport corridor,” not an international waterway open to all.

This raises the specter that Russia will increasingly treat the Northern Sea Route as its personal maritime checkpoint and EZ-Pass toll lane all rolled into one, requiring advance notification from foreign ships before transiting and charging foreign ships a transit fee in the process. This is in clear contradiction to the navigational provisions set forth in the law of the sea convention. Are NATO-led Arctic Freedom of Operations in the future? While this seems unlikely at this time, NATO should be careful not to give Russia too much leeway. And NATO should increase its capacity to operate in the Arctic. In 2018, the NATO exercise Trident Juncture marked the first significant NATO military exercise in the Arctic in years, a hopeful sign for NATO’s capacity to operate in the High North.

2. How will NATO’s Climate Efforts Synchronize with Other International Organizations & Efforts?

NATO has pledged to adopt a “mapping and analytical” methodology to better understand each military’s contribution to GHG emissions as part of broader climate mitigation efforts. This is a welcome and much-needed commitment, as it can be difficult to determine each military’s actual carbon footprint. According to a recent report by the International Military Council on Climate and Security, the defense sector remains the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world. The atmosphere, of course, could care less about the GHG emissions’ underlying source. According to the Brown University Watson Institute, the U.S. military emits more GHG emissions than many NATO member nations. The Paris Climate Accord does not have a specific opt-out provision for military emissions, so better data on the world’s leading militaries’ GHG commitment is a welcome development. How will military emissions be integrated into each nation’s nationally determined contributions as set forth in the Paris Climate Accord? Could NATO’s work on military mitigation be adopted by other nations? Can this effort be part of the Glasgow Climate Change Conference that is being held with great anticipation later this year?

NATO has also pledged to be the leading international organization on climate-security matters, and it plans to initiate a high-level climate and security dialogue to exchange views. Three of the five NATO members (the United States, U.K., and France) are Permanent Five (P5) Security Council Members and have recently expressed an openness to keep climate security discussions and debates at the Council. The Council’s efforts — such as its Arria Formula discussions and Open Debates offer another opportunity for international collaboration on climate security matters. As I have argued in an article forthcoming in the Michigan Journal of International Law, the Security Council will play an increasing role in climate-security impacts, and it has broad legal authorities to act. Under the U.N. Charter, the Council has both the authority and responsibility to act on behalf of all 193 Member Nations on matters of international peace and security. It also possesses broad legal authorities to back its rhetoric (if needed). But the Council, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the EU must all navigate a host of complementary international institutions. Now add NATO to this list.

With NATO’s renewed focus on China and Russia (the other two P5 members), it remains to be seen how NATO will navigate its climate security work with the Security Council. Historically, Russia and China have previously blocked Council climate action, virtually ensuring a role for NATO in the climate security discussion. How will NATO’s efforts be synchronized with the U.N. Security Council’s recent innovative climate-security work? And what international organization is best positioned to take the lead on climate security?

3. Will NATO’s New Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment Better Predict Future, Outside Threats?

NATO has now affirmatively labeled climate change a threat multiplier, a term first coined by my colleague, Sherri Goodman, and now embraced by national security professionals everywhere. This is an important step, and NATO’s announcement of an annual Climate Security Assessment should ensure constant attention to better understand future climate threats and hotspots.

The 2019 European heatwave killed over 500 people, a devastating event made worse by human-induced climate change. Outside Europe, climate change is already destabilizing several “climate hotspots,” particularly in the Middle East and the African Sahel. Many of these climate hotspots will arise outside of NATO’s traditional area of responsibility but can come to Europe’s doorstep in no time. Consider Syria, which suffered from a historic drought just prior to its political upheaval. This drought, which was exacerbated by climate change, led to massive internal displacement and 1.5 million Syrians headed to cities for work after crop yields plummeted. While climate change alone cannot be blamed for the Syrian War’s outbreak, it did set the environmental conditions for instability. The subsequent political upheaval led to a massive human migration crisis that came to Europe’s doorstep.

Outside Syria, there is now a growing body of scholarship and empirical data that connects climate change’s impacts with violent conflict. In 2020, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 12 of the 20 most vulnerable countries to climate change were in a state of conflict. Ideally, NATO’s new Security Impact Assessment will help identify future climate hotspots and better prepare NATO to meet their challenges. Doing so via early warning detection can lead to better intelligence, resourcing, and potentially help alleviate human suffering.

Finally, a personal note. When I served in Europe as a naval officer and attorney earlier in my career, I worked closely with NATO allies on a variety of military operations and exercises. It was an immensely rewarding experience and highlighted to me the strength of allies in the region and the importance of planning ahead for future threats and hotspots. During my time there, the Russo-Georgian War took place over five days, a conflict that caught many off-guard and foreshadowed greater Russian aggression in the region. With its renewed climate focus, NATO is demonstrating an ability to evolve to address climate’s complex contributing role in future security risks.

For climate security matters, the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. NATO is correct to see climate change as a destabilizing force this century and its new Climate Action Plan should help prepare the “strongest and most successful Alliance in history” for our climate-destabilized future.

Image: Sea ice is seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images