With Russia and the west snarling at each other, the gradual warming of the planet may seem like a problem for another day. But climate change is a security threat in itself, and not one that NATO should take lightly.
In 2010, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote: “Climate change presents security challenges of a magnitude and a complexity we have never seen before. We must be prepared for them.”
NATO has yet to deliver an official policy position on climate change – although the 2012 summit in Chicago did acknowledge that climate change and environmental issues “have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations.”
Here are five reasons why NATO must not wait for world peace to put climate change on the agenda.
1. Ungoverned spaces create opportunities for terrorists
Climate change increases the threat of terrorism and violence, the US Pentagon warned earlier this year, as worsening poverty, political instability and social tensions create an environment in which terrorist groups can flourish.
Climate change and land degradation create “ungoverned spaces”, which have been blamed in part for the rise of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. Military analysts and Nigerians have expressed concerns that the Islamist group was able to infiltrate the country by operating in ungoverned areas of the Sahara.
Meanwhile, Africa Review reported that many Boko Haram foot soldiers were people displaced by severe drought and food shortages in Niger and Chad – two climate impacts that are likely to become more severe as temperatures rise.
2. Migration leads to ethnic tensions
People who decide to move internally or across borders to escape the pressures of climate change cannot always be assured of a warm welcome from their new neighbours.
Bangladesh’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan states that “millions” may be displaced due to climate change. Some of these will relocate within the country, while others may look for a new life in India.
This could become a security threat as local people turn against new and unwanted neighbours. A recent report on climate migration in South Asia from one US think-tank recalled violent conflicts which killed around 7,000 people in the 1980s, after a student group in India called for the deportation of all unauthorised Bangladeshi immigrants.
And it’s not just in Asia. In Nigeria, armed conflict broke out when the northern Fulani herdsmen were forced south due to drought, food shortage and unusual weather. “We don’t want them here; they are rapists, thieves, religious bigotries,” said one local, when questioned about the tribesmen.
3. Resource scarcity causes can worsen conflict
States have always fought for access to resources. Climate change threatens to intensify competition, by making essentials such as water supplies more scarce and unreliable.
According to the UN, at least 40% of all intrastate conflicts in the past 60 years have been linked to natural resources. Water conflicts in particular have risen 28% in the 21st century, compared to the previous 25 years.
Climate change is likely to exacerbate tensions over the Amu Darya river basin, which extends across Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. As water flow is disrupted by melting glaciers, Tajikistan is likely to increase its dam reserves, which poses a direct threat to Uzbek livelihoods.
Competition for water has been highlighted in a factor in Palestine-Israeli tensions. In 2012, a UN report highlighted how 300,000 Palestinians in West Bank are vulnerable to water scarcity, due to Israel’s control over the exploitation and distribution of the region’s water resources.
4. Melting ice puts the Arctic up for grabs
Arctic ice is receding, reaching record lows in 2012. This uncovers a wealth of hydrocarbon resources and shipping routes which Arctic nations are keen to seize.
The extent to which this poses the potential for military confrontations remains to be seen. Most territorial claims are within nationally agreed boundaries, with accepted protocols for resolving competing claims. Eagerness to make the most of this Arctic treasure trove means that cooperation, rather than conflict, remains in everyone’s best interests.
But military officials have already sounded warnings. “The United States and the international community are not prepared for the pace of change in the Arctic,” wrote a group of 16 retired army and navy officials in a 2014 report.
This week, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said that he was concerned about Russia’s increased military presence in the Arctic, given its recent aggressive foreign policy stance.
5. It’s already a problem in the US and Europe
We may be more familiar with hearing about conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, but climate impacts are already having an impact – and in some cases demanding a military response – in Europe and the US. This makes it an issue for NATO directly.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the US, thousands of military personnel, including the National Guard, were called in to respond. The US military was also called in to assist in Europe earlier this year, when the Balkans were hit by extreme floods.
Climate change “will continue to affect the operating environment and the roles and missions that US Armed Forces undertake,” said the Pentagon in its 2014 defence review.
The global nature of the marketplace means that climate and security threats abroad will ricochet back to Europe, including the UK. “Just because it is happening 2,000 miles away does not mean it is not going to affect the UK in a globalised world,” said rear admiral Neil Morisetti in a report by Climate Action Network on climate impacts in Europe.