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Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

NATO is taking COP28 seriously

Dr Maurizio Geri
November 29, 2023

NATO and the United Nations have found common cause to address a pressing challenge that imperils the very foundations of human civilization.

The UN has historically recognized climate change as an existential threat to humanity since 1992. Previously, NATO had not been in step with this but has now taken proactive measures to confront the climate crisis head-on.

NATO member states have identified opportunities at the upcoming COP28 summit agenda in Dubai to approach strategic priorities in new ways. The focus areas of technology and innovation can lead to advancements in military capabilities and humanitarian assistance, while the focus on addressing frontline communities and financial aspects relates to the stability and resilience of regions most affected by climate change, which are often areas of strategic interest for NATO.

To articulate this new approach, NATO released its groundbreaking Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment in June last year. Their comprehensive report underscores the stark reality that climate change is not only poised to markedly escalate security risks but will intensify as our planet continues to warm. The fallout threatens to usher in an age of mass migration, resource scarcity, and political instability we have never seen before. NATO member states are beginning to mobilize their forces across the globe, ranging from the Estonian Air Force to the adaptive strategies of the California State Guard.

It comes as no surprise that NATO, during the inaugural High-level Dialogue on Climate Change and Security held during its summit, committed to a formidable target of reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% by 2030, with the ultimate goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This ambitious pledge reflects NATO's realisation of its role in mitigating the climate crisis and aligning with broader global objectives to combat climate change.

While NATO stands steadfast in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression in more traditional defence-orientated terrain, it has ventured into a new battleground: the fight against climate change. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the Conference of the Parties (COP) virtually during the pandemic, leaving no doubt about the urgency of this joint struggle. His message underscored that NATO, a state-membership pact associated with military deterrence and mutual support, is realising its obligations to tackle the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change.

NATO is realising its obligations to tackle the challenges posed by climate change Quote

In a demonstration of support for his closing keynote, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the President of COP28, received firm assurances from at the 10th Arctic Circle conference. This remarkable event, organized in collaboration with several NATO member states, featured a dedicated session focusing on NATO's perspective on the future of the Arctic. Significantly, it highlights that all members of the Arctic Council, except for Russia, either are members of NATO or aspire to join it.

This pivot by NATO has transformed the climate debate into a debate about global defence. With it, there is a growing belief that the imperative for international institutions and governments to unite in collective action must be adhered to—whether under the NATO banner or the UN's overarching mission.

The NATO Science & Technology Organization (STO) recently hosted a Climate Change & Security Workshop, which examined the intricate relationship between climate change and Alliance planning and operations, highlighting potential security threats.

As COP28 continues to unfold, the agenda transcends traditional discussions around the relationships between energy, government and industry. It delves deeper into the intricacies of a sustainable transition and the concerns of indigenous peoples—long crushed by short-sighted politics. Notably, the deliberations of this year's Arctic Council featured active participation from representatives of the Maori, the indigenous population of New Zealand, and the Mamos, the indigenous people of Colombia.

For far too long, the UN's consensus-based decision-making process has struggled with a significant impediment at COP meetings, where a single nation's reluctance can effectively block crucial resolutions. China's reluctance to join 150 nations in limiting methane emissions and extending aid to vulnerable countries remains a stubborn example of this challenge.

This year, at COP28, a palpable consensus is forming, moving beyond the realm of rhetoric into a potent force for change. Notably, pivotal agreements are taking shape, encompassing not only emission targets but also profound issues, such as the rights and welfare of indigenous groups, the responsibilities of big business and the innovations it can provide, as well as the imperative of climate security.

COP28's focus on climate change, its impacts, and the global response to these challenges are deeply intertwined with NATO's security concerns. The summit provides a platform for NATO to engage in dialogue, understand emerging challenges, and develop strategies to address the security implications of climate change.

A lesson is slowly being learned: by engaging in efforts to mitigate climate change, NATO can move to address root causes of instability and conflict.

Through this new framework, it is quietly evident that momentum towards formulating unified and integrated solutions to climate issues are gathering strength. In these discussions that bridge the spheres of security, defense, and sustainability, we can chart a path that reminds all states that the climate issue is more than a political issue, but an existential one.

Mgeri headshot

Dr Maurizio Geri is a former senior NATO analyst, an Italian Navy Lieutenant reservist and EU Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow on "NATO-EU cooperation on emerging and disruptive technologies in the Energy-Resources-Climate Security nexus".

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