NATO's New Strategic Concept (2010) acknowledges that "key environmental and resource constraints, including health risks, climate change, water scarcity and increasing energy needs will further shape the future security environment in areas of concern to NATO and have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations" (emphasis added). Climate change is a serious security concern for the developed world as well as the developing world. Despite efforts on the part of scientists, academics, and even its own staff, NATO has yet to commit to addressing the very real, albeit unconventional, security risks of climate change. In order to address the risks NATO's identity as an organization must shift. An identity shift means three major overhauls in the way NATO functions; the organization needs a new client focus, to revamp its core mission, and to make decisive changes in its strategies and activities.
Climate change increasingly affects the security of its member states by causing economic and political instability. Increasing global temperatures bring extreme weather patterns producing droughts, floods, acute hurricane winds, and rising sea levels. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index reports rises in all food categories since 1990, and especially in wake of the extreme weather patterns of recent years. Russia's heat wave in the summer of 2010 decreased wheat output worldwide. The drought in China this winter will contribute to rising food prices as China imports grains to supplement low production. Protests in Tunisia and Egypt in the early months of 2011 were stimulated in part by rising food prices for which the respective governments failed to account.
But recognizing that the adverse effects of climate change are associated with security concerns is not enough. For NATO, prioritizing member state citizens as clients, rather than prioritizing state bureaucrats, will enlighten and motivate goals that address the unconventional security concerns associated with climate change. NATO needs to become accountable and transparent to its clients, the citizens of its member states, and not shaped by the concerns of elites who still live in a world of international Realpolitik. NATO can become more transparent by forming environmental panels, working on risk analysis, and setting up strategic centers in which NATO staff collaborate with national and transnational civil society organizations, and epistemic communities (including scientists, advocates, and academics) on security risk assessment and strategies to protect member state citizens.
NATO must move beyond its crisis response strategy to prevent crises before they occur. Two studies published in Nature in February 2011 confirm that extreme weather patterns like floods, droughts, heavy rains, and heavy snowfall are caused by human activities (something that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown for years). Furthermore, resource depletion threatens to induce bloody wars in the future. Yet, it doesn't matter who started it, we need to focus on it because of the severity of the security concerns associated with food shortage and rising prices, displaced persons, and political instability. Furthermore, vector-borne diseases are appearing where they have not been found before: Dengue fever has appeared in the United States; Malaria threatens greater proportions of the world's population. To this end, transparency and accountability to member country citizens will result in changes in NATO's core mission and security strategies so that the organization adequately addresses unconventional security concerns. NATO's Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has suggested that NATO pursue a strategy of consultation, adaptation, and operation on climate change security concerns. While his suggestion is commendable, he continues to operate within the familiar research paradigm on security. Prevention is the major strategy change needed.
NATO should be funding research and use of alternative energy, and monitoring and enforcing norm compliance as a way to prevent future crises associated with climate change. A shift in focus from crisis response to prevention therefore means a shift in technical capacity and activities. The organization already has advantages in promoting cooperation and coordination on climate change security concern; it also has the ability to enforce implementation of the norms that encourage states to limit GHG emissions and fund exploration of sustainable energy sources (consider the UN Framework on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol). NATO should encourage research into alternative sources of energy as a crisis prevention technique. John Deutch wrote an article in Foreign Affairs that described untapped natural gas resource in shale in North America, Canada, and Mexico that is economically viable to extract and could alleviate dependence on unsustainable, costly, polluting oil. Additionally, issues emerge with extraction of unconventional energy sources that could have environmental and security threats for humans (hydraulic fracturing in the case of natural gas) and NATO needs to be aware and on the alert in order to protect the citizens of member countries from threats associated with searches for new resources as the old ones die out.
If NATO does not take these measures in identity shift and interest transformation, North American and European citizens could face security concerns of food scarcity, human illness, and resource depletion that have never been experienced in human history. Are such unpredictable security concerns worth the risk? Will NATO take note of the proverbial bottom half of the glacier that is hidden by waves of unpredictability and uncertainty and respond, or will the organization continue to focus on the small glacier in view as it has done and steam on through hazardous waters?
Roni Kay Marie O'Dell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. Her work in the fields of international relations and political theory centers on the source of norms in international politics.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can read more submissions from the competition here.