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NATO released the Secretary General’s annual Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment on 9 July 2024, which noted that accelerating climate change has “a profound impact on Allied security” and stressed the need for NATO to remain fit for purpose in a rapidly changing environment.

The assessment, NATO’s third, is part of an ambitious Action Plan on Climate Change and Security that NATO Leaders adopted at the Brussels Summit in 2021.

Building on previous editions, it examines the impact of climate change on each of NATO’s operating domains – sea, land, air, space and cyber – as well as on NATO’s missions and operations, as well as resilience and civil preparedness.

Noting that internationally recognised entities have highlighted twin themes – the speed and scale at which the climate crisis continues to unfold, and the overwhelming urgency of addressing the root causes of climate change – the NATO assessment warned that, “in addition to dealing with a physical operating environment altered by climate change, Allied forces must also contend with the intensifying indirect (second and third order) impacts of climate change on security – both in the Euro-Atlantic area and in the Alliance’s broader neighbourhood”.

The report warned that a growing body of authoritative research and analysis notes that climate change has the potential to contribute to higher levels of conflict, instability, and violence, but along indirect pathways, such as climate-induced instability, large-scale population movements, and disruptions of global supply chains.

It also put a particular focus on the High North, noting that the “circumpolar Arctic continues to experience warming at about four times the global average, with profound implications for the environment, local communities, access to, and the security of, the region”.

Of the effects on NATO and allied military bases and assets, the assessment warned that “direct hazards associated with climate change, such as heatwaves, floods, droughts, fires, erosion and extreme winds, are likely to impact military equipment, weapon systems and installations. It added, however, that “climate change hazards can lead to higher maintenance and repair costs, pose safety risks to military personnel, and ultimately affect military effectiveness and readiness”, as well as posing increased operational stress on military personnel.

Regarding NATO missions and operations, the assessment pointed out that many allied missions and activities take place in regions that are already vulnerable to extreme heat, heavy rainfall, dust storms and other extreme weather events. NATO Mission Iraq (NMI), for example, is particularly affected by heatwaves, with the report stating that the number of ‘black flag weather days’ – when temperatures exceed 35°C and NMI operations are restricted or ceased altogether for health and safety reasons – continue to increase.

NATO is addressing the effects that climate change will have on its operating environments, missions, assets and adversaries. (Photo: NATO)

For the first time the assessment includes an analysis of climate change impacts on NATO’s potential adversaries and strategic competitors. While calling them out for seeking to exploit climate-related stresses across NATO, for example by spreading climate and energy transition-related disinformation intended to erode NATO nations’ action in climate change, the assessment noted that NATO’s potential adversaries and strategic competitors are not immune to the effects of climate change.

The assessment states that the effects of changing climate on Russia “have been particularly evident in its Arctic and southern agricultural zones, and include permafrost thaw, increased flooding, prolonged droughts and heatwaves, as well as a growing number and severity of natural disasters”. It adds that the projected changes to Russia’s climate “could heighten socio-political and economic stresses”.

Regarding Moscow’s response to climate change, the assessment states, “Although Russia acknowledges that global warming presents a serious problem, its response to climate change to date has been based on a careful weighing of costs and benefits. The focus has been on adaptation to the physical impacts of climate change, rather than mitigation strategies that address the root causes. Climate security is largely absent in Russian military planning and thinking, with no concrete actions having been taken to adapt military bases to the effects of climate change – with the sole exception of the Arctic region. There, Russia has adapted to cold, dark and harsh conditions and developed substantial capability to support military operations in remote ice-covered areas.”

Looking at the impact of climate change on China, the assessment states that it “faces threats from sea-level rise, severe weather events, intensifying heatwaves and droughts, desertification (notably in the northeast of the country) and glacial melt”.

As well as potential economic and socio-political impacts across the country, the effects of climate change on China, the assessment states, “can have repercussions for the rest of the world”, noting the issue of food security as an example. “As climate change increasingly affects global food systems, some countries (including the PRC) are working to acquire large amounts of agricultural land abroad, as well as developing effective trade conduits for trade in foodstuffs, to ensure their long-term food security and diversify food supplies,” the assessment notes. “Concurrently, the PRC’s agricultural production, which currently feeds approximately 20% of global population, plays a critical role in the global food supply chain, and any substantial climate impacts on it will have global implications.”

China’s response, according to the assessment, emphasises both adaptation and mitigation measures, while balancing economic development with climate goals.

The Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment also presented case studies in three geographical areas: NATO’s presence in Kosovo; the Rovajärvi shooting and training area in Finland; and the joint Canadian and US early-warning radar system for North American ​air defence (NORAD). It also evaluated the performance of submarines, naval helicopters and military transport aircraft in a changing climate, noting, for example, that the lift capacities of transport and rotary-wing aircraft can be considerably degraded in high temperatures, while submarine detection by sonar can be adversely affected by transmission loss and ambient noise caused by climate change.