What do energy security and climate change have in common? Both represent enormous, and highly interdependent challenges with massive security implications for the transatlantic community. The only viable answer to both is the development of a sustainable, low-carbon economy. Unlike man-made climate change however, the finiteness of fossil fuels is a politically accepted reality on both sides of the Atlantic. The transition to a low-carbon economy is not simply an environmental issue, but an economic necessity. From a security point of view, a speedy transition would mean a comprehensive approach to tackle some of the biggest security threats of the twenty-first century: climate change, the dependency on fossil fuels from fragile regions, and competition over scarce resources.
Climate change is already affecting regional and global security as a threat multiplier: In regions like Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, climate change will exacerbate existing tensions on issues such as the shortage of arable land and fresh-water supply and will thereby further fuel already existing conflicts over depleting resources. Given the strategic importance of the Middle East and Central Asia, instability will have severe repercussions on the strategic interests of NATO and its individual member states. Environmentally-induced migration from Africa to the EU is already a tragic reality and migratory pressure is most likely to rise as the effects of climate change increasingly amplify. Additionally, receding coastlines are a threat to critical infrastructure, including military infrastructure, all around the globe.
Western economies are highly dependent on fossil fuels, the vast majority of which are however in one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world: the Middle East. Thus, western economies will be highly vulnerable to conflicts as long as this dependency continues to exist. The recent rise in tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme has already led to a significant increase in oil prices. In case of further escalation of the conflict, a possible attempt by Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz would almost inevitably have dramatic effects on the global economy as a whole, and Western economies in particular.
All this has the potential to feed back into greater competition for resources, which will not only affect the countries in the already mentioned fragile regions, but will and already has negative implications for great power relations, and even for relations among NATO members themselves. Russia's president-elect Vladimir Putin recently announced his country's plans to dramatically increase its defence spending, explicitly pointing to the increased competition over resources. The melting ice-cap in the Arctic region opens new shipping routes and undersea resources that are already the focus of international competition among the Arctic powers, including tensions between NATO members Canada, Denmark and the US.
A speedy transition to a low-carbon economy would certainly not solve all these issues
at once, but it would help to significantly mitigate their effects. Considering the transatlantic gap on climate change policy and NATO’s intergovernmental character, it is hardly surprising that NATO’s approach to climate change is limited to accepting it as a reality, man-made or not, that necessitates adaptation. In regard to energy security the alliance is committed to securing foreign energy supply. As those foreign energies will be exhausted rather sooner than later, the challenge for NATO, as not only an alliance but a political community, is to advance, enable and provide incentives for the necessary economic
transition from high- to low-carbon industries. Given the massive security implications of the issue and the fact that the finiteness of fossil fuels will affect all member states sooner or later, NATO should provide a forum where ideas are exchanged and best practices shared. Bring energy security on the agenda for the next summit!
Stephan Vormann is a PhD-Researcher in International Politics.