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NATO Cannot Combat Climate Change

As European and North American military alliances prepare to “wage war on climate change,” the real war on nature and vulnerable communities rages in the background. 

Words: Nico Edwards
Pictures: NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is stepping up as a central actor in addressing climate change. Positioning itself as a “driver of climate action” and a first responder to climate risks, the military alliance is pushing a key message: there is a war to be waged on climate change, and NATO’s allied militaries are getting ready to wage it. This development should stop us in our tracks. Here’s why. 

Depoliticizing Climate Change as an Inevitable Threat-Multiplier 

As more allied states weave climate risks into their military policies, NATO has published a range of climate security strategy reports, and recently opened a Centre of Excellence to platform and harness military-civilian cooperation around climate security risks and solutions. The alliance hopes to become “the leading international organization when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security.” 

NATO’s view of its role in a climate changed world is informed by the reductive, realist, and deterministic discourses around climate security that have long dominated policymaking. These discourses reduce climate change to a threat-multiplier against which the nation, and the state’s access to natural resources, must be secured by military means. At the heart of this reading is the assumption that deteriorating environmental conditions necessarily lead to increased conflict, social tensions and geopolitical competition — or even total interstate “climate wars”. By fixing the emergency as a “hyper-threat”, it follows naturally to declare a “war on climate change.” However, this notion is cause for concern, and not because of its warning of impending doom. 

References to the inevitable competition over territory and resources naturalize the military’s response to ecological crises as one based on combating symptoms instead of mitigating root causes. In one effective depoliticizing sweep, the threat-multiplier notion removes ecological conditions from their social-political contexts and masks the role of geopolitical institutions like NATO in exacerbating climate harms and vulnerabilities. 

NATO “Combating” Climate Change and Hijacking Climate Action 

The 2020s are bearing witness to defense departments’ and military institutions’ fervent usage of the threat-multiplier argument to justify the military’s purpose in an era of climate collapse. “NATO must combat climate change,” writes its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, confirming — pun intended? — just how a military alliance is equipped to respond to non-military challenges like environmental degradation: through combat. Media reiterate this framing, helping to rationalize the militarisation of climate change and action with headlines like “NATO wages war on climate threat” and “It’s time to shift from a ‘war on terror’ to a war on climate change.” Policy think tanks — with clear ties to military sectors, like the British think-tank RUSI — similarly call for NATO to “enhance” its response to climate change through stepping up as “carbon warriors.” 

Jens Stoltenberg is a key figure to look toward to identify the narrative strategies at play in promoting the notion that climate change can and should be addressed by military means. “Climate change is making the world more dangerous” he writes, confirming hyper-threat framings of ecological challenges. “NATO’s task is to preserve peace and keep us safe,” he continues, banking on the naturalization of militarized versions of security as those which ensure international stability. Here Stoltenberg performs the task of militarism par excellence: conflating the preparation for war with the conditions for peace, to normalize and legitimize the need for war. “So, to fulfill our main responsibility” Stoltenberg concludes, “NATO must help to curb climate change for our security today and for the security of future generations.” This conclusion follows naturally: if climate change makes the world more perilous and NATO is the guarantor of international security and stability, NATO “has a clear role to play in addressing the security implications of climate change.”

Of course, it is true that climate change makes the world more insecure, and if NATO could help curb it we would be happier for it. However, depending on how one understands what the dangers from ecological crises like global warming are, the understanding of what is causing them and how to respond differ drastically. As a globally spanning political and military-industrial alliance, NATO is intimately bound up with the distribution of power and resources that have generated and keep propelling ecological crises. To the Secretary General of this alliance, definitions of danger, risk, peace, sustainability and security carry very specific meanings. 

The urge for NATO to help curb climate change and think of future generations as much as the safety of today, is sound — but it is misleading. Only if it meant truly reckoning with the inseparability of military institutions in creating and perpetuating global ecological breakdown and social instability, would these words mean what we need them to mean.  

Repoliticizing Climate Change: Recognising the Real War On Nature

NATO is responsible for more than 50% of global military spending. Military spending, in turn, is one of the key drivers of military carbon emissions and is an acute impediment to climate action. NATO is also a military alliance whose security guarantees are based on deterrence. This means it balances power through gambling on the mutually assured destruction of its members, enemies, and potentially the whole planet, from nuclear weapons. That NATO is accepted as having a given role in addressing climate change hinges on a set of underlying narratives and interests that make such an equation possible. These underlying webs are easy to miss for all the pro-planetary hyperbole of the climate security rhetoric. 

Recognizing the power of language in shaping both budget priorities and public perceptions of war and climate collapse, we need to resist NATO’s militarization of climate change rhetoric. It is imperative to encourage public critical engagement with the notion of climate change as an enemy to be fought with drones, tanks, and hypersonic missiles. There is no war to be waged on climate change. No arms however “green” will save us from deforestation, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. No net-zero army can solve the root causes behind resource depletion or help prevent vulnerable populations’ forced migration to escape drought and floods. 

Recognizing the power of language in shaping both budget priorities and public perceptions of war and climate collapse, we need to resist NATO’s militarization of climate change rhetoric.

The labeling of European and North American militaries as climate warriors only works to silence the communities who live at the actual frontlines of ecological crises, notably indigenous, working and communities of color. Instead, frontline communities across the globe offer testimony to the real wars that are being waged by military actors from NATO to the US, to Russia, to Israel and beyond; not against a changing climate, but against vulnerable communities and their lands. A war on nature, on the ecological conditions that sustain us and our planetary co-habitants, raging across 500 years of unhinged extraction, exploitation, and harm

Climate change is the consequence of this war, not a new battlefront for the demonstration of European and North American military prowess. Rather than adopt without questioning the military logic of turning our (soon-to-be “sustainable”) guns at ecological crises (and each other) in the next “battle” for humanity’s survival, we need to refuse such martial worldviews. They never included all of humanity in their visions for survival to begin with. Instead, we should reread the contemporary moment as an opportunity to foster old and novel forms of conviviality, connectivity, and collective thriving — visions for world-making that render the military out of function and void of purpose. 

Nico Edwards

Nico Edwards is the author of the new World Peace Foundation report Resisting Green Militarism: Building Movements for Peace and Eco-Social Justice. She is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex (UK), Advisor to Scientists for Global Responsibility and an Emerging Expert with Forum on the Arms Trade.

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