Source: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Scientists and defense experts across the globe are raising alarm over the increasingly destabilizing impact climate change has on society and its potential to increase risk of conflict due its role as a threat multiplier. However, NATO has not incorporated climate change into its operational planning in a meaningful way — and currently faces a serious intelligence gap — due to its lack of focus on climate-induced national instability.

In a recent RAND report, NATO’s ability to assess climate risk was found lacking in that “NATO’s early warning system (NIWS) is not presently configured for this type of problem (nor is it clear that an adequate one exists); the screening mechanism (NAC discretion) is based upon subjective judgment (perhaps justifiably).” 

NATO could potentially not be faulted for its current climate intelligence gap, as information published by international groups that is readily available on the risks of climate change — such as the reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, widely considered the definitive international consensus on climate change — are generally broad declarations, justifying the necessity of action and designating susceptible areas. The available information is less suited to identifying targeted action that can be taken in specific contexts, a level of detail that is required for NATO to operationalize strategic action. Additionally, specific environmental science data necessary to project the physical impacts of climate change in key operational contexts is currently dispersed over a variety of academic and state institutions in different member states. Regardless, the difficulties in compiling actionable climate intelligence are no excuse for future inaction.  

To address this intelligence blind spot and provide actionable intelligence to inform operational decision-making, NATO should develop a Climate Intelligence Head Quarters (HQ) that aggregates the projected and documented physical impacts of climate change in areas of strategic interest to NATO. This could resemble a departmental entity tasked with:

  • Identifying which states/geographic areas of strategic interest will likely face disruption and civil unrest from climate pressures;
  • Monitoring areas whose stability is designated as a high strategic interest to NATO for preliminary signs of severe societal pressures as projected in climate models, using data from social, economic, and environmental science disciplines;
  • Developing contingency plans and other advice that decision makers can employ to mitigate social unrest and potential breakdown through pre-emptive action. 

Countries are facing increasing risk of instability and subsequent conflict due to climate pressures that will change the security environment of NATO areas of interest, member states, and strategic partners, necessitating an informed response. Take Pakistan, a NATO partner that derives 90 percent of its agricultural water supply from the Indus river, a water system that at two degrees of warming will face a 38 percent melt of the mountain ice pack from which over half its flow derives.  Not only does this create a breeding ground for civil-unrest in a nation where approximately 40 percent of the population is employed through agriculture and that is home to ten active terrorist groups, but the headwaters of the Indus river are in India and Indian controlled Jammu/Kashmir. Given the history of hostility between the two countries, NATO should prepare itself to track the added pressure that water shortages may place on the relationship between these two nuclear-armed states. These kind of proactive measures would give NATO improved intelligence as to when hostilities may flare up, and more time to develop response plans to water-driven conflict and civil unrest.

Another example of where climate-centred research could be useful is in NATO’s immediate backyard of the Mediterranean, and the case of the aridity line, the rainfall gradient demarking land that receives 200mm of annual rainfall from land that does not. Running through the Mid-East and North Africa — and marking the border between the Sahel and the Sahara — this delineation is important as 200mm of annual rainfall is required to grow cereal crops without the aid of irrigation. Meaning unassisted cereal agriculture is impossible for land on the wrong side of the aridity line. The reason this is important in the age of climate intelligence is that the aridity line is not a fixed demarcation, with territory on its border being susceptible to envelopment by the aridity line’s shifting boundaries due to swings in environmental conditions. Unsurprisingly the aridity line runs right through some of the most intense active conflict zones. When the ability to make a living through traditional agriculture and access to affordable foods is taken away, civil-unrest ensues. Climate change is projected not only to make the movement of the aridity line more extreme, but also to permanently extend the aridity line forward to encompass territory within NATO members’ borders in some cases.  

The impacts climate change induced pressures on NATO’s security concerns are not just projections for the future, however.

Experts have linked a climate change enhanced regional drought — that raised food prices and destroyed agricultural livelihoods in Syria — to massive rural-to-urban migration and subsequent pressure on limited infrastructure. The resulting economic trends sent millions into poverty. Paired with the non-responsiveness of Syria’s Assad regime, what followed was societal unrest, protests, and eventually civil war. Syria has demonstrated that climate pressures can lead to conflict within NATO’s backyard.

Could Syria have been predicted?

Modeling risk traditionally has two parts: a risk assessment to determine the probability of a hazard occurring and a concern assessment measuring the degree of detrimental social or economic impact if the hazard occurs. Concerning climate change, the probability of a hazard occurring in the form of expected changes in rainfall, aquifer depletion, drought severity, and changes to average crop yield can be arrived at with increasing accuracy as climate modeling improves. However, the latter concern assessment — determining the degree of social and economic impact if the physical impact of climate change occurs — is more difficult, due to the ability of government and populations to display agency and act in response to climate hazards. What this means is that it is not possible to predict a definitive cause and effect relationship between the physical impacts of climate change and societal breakdown

What Syria demonstrates though, is that it is possible to predict the likelihood of conflict, if the physical impacts of climate change are measured and a target government’s corresponding response — or lack thereof — is tracked. It was well known that the Assad regime maintained social control especially in rural areas through government operation of the country’s agricultural systems, and by setting the price for agricultural inputs (i.e. fertilizers, seed, and water) and outputs (i.e. staple goods a farmer may be producing). However, following the drought of 2006-2011, the government did nothing to adjust its agricultural systems to reduce water demand, passing on prices to farmers, and causing a destabilizing migration of 800,000 people from rural to urban Syria.  

Knowledge about the inaction of the Syrian regime and its failure to maintain rural livelihoods was available; so too was knowledge about subsequent stressors on food, water and housing prices. Together this information could have been compiled to predict a high likelihood of social unrest. What NATO is missing is an entity that bridges these two information silos and spits out actionable military intelligence.  

Climate instability is not NATO’s Friend — it is an opportunity for China and Russia

NATO should be concerned about the impacts of climate change on fragile states, as even short of the risk of triggering great power conflict, the destabilization of fragile states is not in NATO’s geostrategic interest. Regime collapse influenced by climate change provides an opportunity for NATO’s strategic rivals to extend their influence. Turkey’s partial embrace of Russia provides a good example. Turkey’s turn from the West was built on previous precedent such as its view of the US as a destabilizing force in the Mid-East following its invasion of Iraq. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that US support for Kurdish paramilitary groups, as well as Russia’s increased presence as a dictating force in Syria, built the critical mass required to push Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan towards Russia.

NATO emerged from the Cold War placed in the best position of its history. It has the incentive to preserve as much of this post cold war world system of alliances as possible. Climate change presents the opportunity for rising powers such as China, or those embracing a more muscular foreign policy such as Russia, to expand their sphere of influence. 

Identifying and monitoring countries that are both high risk of climate induced unrest and whose stability is of high priority to NATO’s security interests through some sort of intelligence HQ is the first step. However, the ability to gather intel is only as impactful in changing the course of events as the Alliance’s ability to respond. 

What potential response could NATO provide?

Delivery of food aid is one example of a stabilizing force NATO could deploy to reduce civil unrest and encourage population resiliency against opportunistic actors. It was well documented that during the Syrian civil war ISIS frequently used the delivery of food packages in territory it held to gain the obedience of occupied civilian populations. During the coronavirus pandemic, both Russia and China have leveraged aid as a way to garner political capital. In the era of climate change, if conditions have already deteriorated to the point where agriculture is failing in regions of high strategic importance, NATO forces could deliver food aid as a stop-gap stabilizing measure to protect against influence by hostile powers.

Food aid is at best a tool of last resort. Ideally NATO could engage in pre-emptive targeted actions with the aid of a climate intelligence HQ, to improve the resilience of strategic regions’ agricultural and other key supply chains. This could both prevent the failure of these key systems and mitigate against the opportunity for hostile powers to extend their influence. 

Marching Roman centurions carried spade and sword, as the empire knew that maintaining vital infrastructure was just as important as projecting force in ensuring stability. The US Army Corps of Engineers has currently been deployed to construct field hospitals to relieve pressure on civilian medical facilitates in response to the surge in COVID-19 infections. While the military’s role is primarily as a deployed force, leaving the construction of key infrastructure to civilian bodies more specialized for the task, armed forces have played a key supplementary role in maintaining stability through deploying or servicing infrastructure.

Under the impacts of climate change, maintaining and constructing water and agricultural infrastructure will be vital in ensuring social stability and reducing the risk of conflict.  Examples of military focus on providing such infrastructure resiliency can again be found with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which engages projects such as the construction of levees, dams, and most recently, the build-up of coastal shoreline to hold back sea-level rise where it is deemed to be in the interest of national security — such as in Norfolk, Virginia where the US Atlantic fleet is based.  

NATO’s contribution could be as simple as deploying forces to guard and escort agronomists, allowing them to impart more climate-suited agricultural techniques in unstable regions. Or it may involve the deployment of military engineers and forces to aid in the construction of water resilience infrastructure such as wide scale rain catchment and storage at the level of the refugee camp, or the construction of desalination plants on other end of the scale.

The road to conflict is paved by more than just the movement of troops. NATO needs an intelligence HQ to identify which areas of strategic interest will become the next climate pressure hot spots, and advise the Alliance on how to prevent these unfurling situations from producing an unfavourable geopolitical result.