In an Era of Climate Uncertainty, NATO Must Adapt


Jun 24, 2024

Bundeswehr paratroopers take up position after landing during NATO exercises at the 71st Airbase in Romania, May 13, 2024, photo by Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Reuters

Bundeswehr paratroopers take up position after landing during NATO exercises at the 71st Airbase in Romania, May 13, 2024

Photo by Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Reuters

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, recent emphasis on enlargement and bolstering of defence capabilities risks overshadowing its other activities. Two years ago, the alliance announced its determination to set the “gold standard” for addressing the implications of climate change for international security. Though worthy, this may be difficult to achieve in today's world.

The war in Ukraine, with its profound geopolitical stakes—reshaping European borders and reigniting state-on-state conflict in Europe—has demanded focus and resources from NATO members. Not only has Russia's invasion threatened NATO's ability to maintain peace in Europe, but it has also resulted in Finland and Sweden joining the alliance and national defence budgets rising.

In the past year, NATO defence spending by European members and Canada increased by 11 percent. The required capabilities have also shifted—before the invasion, some NATO members focused their procurement on counterinsurgency against non-state threats, but this has pivoted towards capabilities for conventional and territorial warfighting. Finite resources and capacity to tackle challenges means that urgent crises often consume NATO's attention. Pressing threats can sideline equally vital longer-term challenges such as climate change, leaving them in the shadows of immediate policy priorities.

Pressing threats can sideline equally vital longer-term challenges such as climate change, leaving them in the shadows of immediate policy priorities.

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NATO and its members have integrated climate change into priorities and core tasks (PDF), acknowledging the threat posed by climate change and the vulnerability of NATO assets (PDF). The NATO Resilience Committee supports such efforts and emphasises the urge to address climate change and its present and forthcoming impacts. Yet climate change remains unlikely to take precedence in current defence policymaking and capability design. Some nations think that merely tweaking current strategies to hit net-zero targets, bolstering resilience to prepare for climate disasters, and tuning existing capabilities will suffice. NATO's response to climate change can be alarmingly slow, and the urgent need to accelerate these adaptations is often underestimated.

Recent research has suggested that climate change is gathering speed. Leading climate scientists warn that current climate models significantly underestimate the pace of global warming. As a result, targets set under the Paris Agreement—limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—are “deader than a doornail.” Even the less ambitious target of 2 degrees Celsius is unlikely to be met given the acceleration of warming. These higher temperatures increase the risk of entering a future of feedback loops, where changes in the climate create effects that accelerate further disruptions.

If this scenario is realised, NATO's slowness to adapt could result in the alliance being inadequately prepared to operate in a more extreme and volatile climate. We are already witnessing the impact that extreme weather has on force readiness and military infrastructure. Flooding has halted activity at U.S. bases, both coastal and inland, and a hurricane has damaged U.S. Air Force F-22 aircraft. Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, experiences extreme heat. The United Kingdom's coastal military nuclear infrastructure is vulnerable to flooding, sea-level rise, and storm surge, as well as inland facilities being threatened by flooding and inundation. Lastly, as when the UK army's Foxhound armoured vehicles kept overheating in Afghanistan, technological developments to counter extreme conditions do not always meet the need.

Climate change is often seen as a net-zero problem or a humanitarian assistance problem for military forces. But it is also a warfighting problem. RAND research shows that militaries will need to operate in more extreme environmental conditions—and have the specialist training, doctrine, and equipment to enable them to do so more effectively than their adversaries. And they will need to balance maintaining readiness for warfighting with increasing demand for domestic disaster relief tasks for emergencies, which may become both more common and more severe, and which governments are unlikely to see as discretionary.

Climate change is already taking a toll on military systems and efficacy, casting doubt on whether current strategies adequately account for harsher conditions. Beyond fortifying military bases, capabilities, and personnel against extreme weather, climate change is unveiling new strategic battlegrounds at the thawing poles and threatening societal resilience, among other things.

There is a consequent need for NATO to reorient its thinking and act quickly. Typically, military institutions have seen climate change as a preparedness problem, but it ought also to be baked into strategic direction, force structure planning, and capability design, in ways that turn the risks into opportunities.

Enhancing military contributions to society-wide efforts to mitigate climate emissions and their effects may also make sense. For example, green technology can reduce the logistics burden typically associated with fossil fuels and enhance resilience. Decentralised use of solar panels has helped Ukraine withstand Russian attacks on energy infrastructure. Coastal bases can also act as a barrier to storm surge and sea-level rise.

NATO offers a rare mechanism for countries to collaborate against shared pressures in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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NATO also offers a rare mechanism for countries to collaborate against shared pressures in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Funding is available to accelerate research on defence technologies in a changing climate, through the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, the Science and Technology Organization and the NATO Investment Fund. The newly formed Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence in Canada also acts as a crucial hub for NATO, facilitating knowledge-sharing and bolstering responses (PDF) to climate-related risks. A future step might be promoting cooperation models. They could help NATO members to not only counter conventional threats, but also tackle emerging issues like mass migration, geopolitical tensions in the Arctic, and other climate-induced security challenges.

Finally, as RAND research shows, NATO could weave more extreme operating conditions and increased concurrency pressures into its future force planning, capability design, and technology development. Equipment to help soldiers operate in hotter and more humid conditions could be an advantage, as would adapting military doctrine, training, and exercises. Looking for opportunities in technology development or force design for platforms to be regenerated more quickly could help alleviate pressures on forces to respond to domestic crises alongside military matters.

A NATO that more deliberately incorporates climate change into its as-usual planning would stand a good chance of maintaining its capability edge in the future world. Such strategic foresight is crucial to ensuring military effectiveness in harsh environments and maintaining the collective defence at the core of the alliance. In this era of unprecedented environmental and geopolitical change, that is not just preferable—it is indispensable.

Maria Chiara Aquilino and Sarah Winder are junior analysts in defence and security at RAND Europe.