Climate security threat remains hidden behind current conflicts

BLOG: Leaders at NATO kept silent on climate change, despite its proven security implications

Pic: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Pic: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo in Newport

At the NATO summit, the UK distributed leaflets outlining its five priorities for the summit. 

Number one is, obviously, the crisis in Ukraine. The phrase “most crucial summit since the Cold War” could easily have been the summit’s tagline, with Russia’s incursion into its neighbour dominating discussions between the NATO allies.

Number two is Afghanistan, with allies discussing their strategy as NATO’s combat mission draws to a close.

Number three is more promising: “tackling new threats”.

It says: “We must agree how NATO will help to protect its members from new challenges, whether the threat posed by extremists, regional conflicts or cyber attacks.”

There were plenty of glittering medals, starched uniforms and fancy new tanks on display in Newport. But no apparent concern about climate change.


Given the desperate need to address the advancing Islamic State forces in Iraq, which is not on the official agenda, climate change is not a subject that is likely to have generated much table talk when leaders met for their working dinner at Cardiff Castle on Thursday night.

Renovated last century when Cardiff was the coal capital of the world, its medieval castle and Victorian Gothic backdrop could have been an appropriate place to discuss energy transitions.

Instead it was Russia, which relies on its huge fossil fuel reserves to keep its economy afloat, and the oil-rich Middle East that were discussed over crab, lamb and summer fruit pudding.

It’s not that NATO doesn’t recognise global warming as a threat.

In 2010, NATO members acknowledged it as a “new strategic concept”, which was reinforced two years later in NATO’s Chicago Communique.

But the perennial problem of climate change hangs particularly heavily over NATO: it is not urgent enough.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much space for serious conversation [on climate change] in Wales given the crises,” Damon Wilson, vice president of the Atlantic Council of the United States, a Washington think-tank, said on the sidelines of the summit.

Michael Clarke, head of the London think-tank Royal United Services Institute added: “In the case of IS, we’ve got weeks to act.” Even in the mouths most climate vulnerable countries, these kind of ultimatums would sound far-fetched.

That’s not to say that the threats are not urgent. Climate change increases the threat of natural disasters, which can sweep in with little or no warning. Last year, in the case of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the death toll had risen to over 6,000 within weeks of landfall.

These kind of events have security implications, according to experts RTCC has spoken to.

These include displaced populations create fertile ground for tensions to erupt, and NATO security forces are often called in to deliver humanitarian aid in the wake of the disaster.

This could pose an additional burden on NATO forces at a time when all but four of the alliance nations are failing to meet their defence spending targets.


But the difference between ISIS and climate change is that the latter is uncertain.

While newspapers controversially splash on images of armed jihadists and their victims, the link between global warming and its victims is not as clear. Scientists still stress that no single extreme weather event can be explicitly blamed on climate change.

“There’s a general sense that climate is going to have an impact, but from a security point of view people want to know when, because it’s very difficult to do planning when it’s so unpredictable,” says Jamie Shea, deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security threats at NATO.

Meanwhile, designating climate change a military issue comes with political risks, particularly as the UN’s climate change conference in Paris approaches.

At this 2015 meeting, countries will come together to try to find a solution to climate change. The idea is that countries will pledge to cut their emissions and make financial contributions in order to avoid an environmental catastrophe that will particularly hit developing nations.

NATO is concerned that an overt military focus ahead of this will give nations an excuse to hold back on ambition, counting instead on the military to sort it out.

“Certainly we don’t want to give the impression that the military feels disaster scenarios are important to give us a new threat. That would be totally wrong,” adds Shea.

“In the military there are enough real, immediate things to have to deal with and our interest like everybody’s interest is trying to prevent the worst happening through a deal. I think this is an important part of the politics in the run up to Paris.”

NATO’s 2016 summit will take place in Poland—a coal-reliant country that is not renowned for its hot pursuit of climate action. Its incoming secretary general, former UN climate envoy Jens Stoltenberg, however, could reinvigorate its treatment of climate.

But it is the state of world peace that is ultimately likely to determine NATO’s 2016 agenda. “We’ll be judged on that for sure,” says Clarke.

And once again, despite the dire warnings issued by the UN’s IPCC climate science panel earlier this year, the potential effects of soaring levels of greenhouse gas emissions remains the awkward guest at the party.

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