Climate change is a unifying threat — NATO should enact Article 5 to combat it

Climate change is a unifying threat — NATO should enact Article 5 to combat it
© Getty Images

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) recently joined the group of nations, cities, central bank and companies pledging to eliminate net CO2 emissions by 2050. We should certainly applaud them. NATO’s purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means.

But despite a plethora of pledges made by many entities to reduce carbon emissions, the CO2 level is now 409ppm (higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years) and climbing. In that context, can NATO’s plan be anything more than a decent gesture that will have little impact on climate change and CO2 levels. Given climate change is one of the greatest threats to global populations — and has increased conflicts and suffering — is this enough from NATO? I argue no. NATO has the power to do more. 

What if NATO was to consider climate change as a full-fledged assault on our communities, nations and planet? And instead of a voluntary pledge NATO attacked climate change under its existing charter to create a secure world, and support allies. In other words: What if NATO invoked Article 5?

ADVERTISEMENT

Article 5 (The Collective Defense Clause) of the North Atlantic Treaty that created NATO is at the heart of the alliance. The clause states that if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, every other member of the alliance will consider this act of violence as an attack against all members. NATO will then take the actions deemed necessary to assist. At what point does climate change become that unifying threat?

After September 11 — when Article 5 was invoked for the first time — NATO nations united in their response. They acted collectively, shared intelligence, completed missions together and agreed to specific protection measures. 

Herculean efforts will need to reach the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. According to a Princeton University study, in the U.S. alone, quadrupling the size of wind and solar, expanding the transmission infrastructure (utilizing the electrons provided by renewable energy) by at least 60 percent, and getting 50 million electric vehicles on the road. President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE’s efforts to advance this through his infrastructure bill has already been watered-down. 

Even if all of that is accomplished, we will only be halfway to the global goal — proving a "friendly" United Nations-centric approach won't work alone. We need a far bolder, organized and defensive response if we even have a chance of achieving these necessary goals.  

So, what if climate change was looked at as a non-traditional “terrorist” attack? After all, the impacts are not all that different from those experienced in traditional Article 5 scenarios. Climate change affects national and international security by destabilizing regions, creating shortages, lowering economies, and creating dangerous refugee crises. Basically, what many of these significant acts of terrorism or war do, climate change does as well.

ADVERTISEMENT

Climate change also contributes to conflict. According to several experts who met in 2019, intensifying climate change will increase armed conflict. For example, drought and desertification worsened Syria's conflict. Starting in 2006, Syria suffered its worst drought in 900 years-decimating its crops and livestock and displacing 1.5million farmers into crowded cities. Water became scarce and food expensive. 

NATO has the unique capability to respond swiftly to international crises. If we look at climate change through this lens, NATO can mobilize and deploy to create a common defense. What would that look like?

First, NATO nations can agree that climate change is a threat to peace and security, requiring an Article 5-level collective action. The organization touts its consulting and cooperation on defense and security-related issues to prevent conflict ultimately.  

As it did after 9/11, nations can share data to develop proactive, responsive strategies for climate change. NATO can use the shared information to analyze scenarios, hypothesize outcomes and find ways to reduce or improve the crises. 

That's in addition to NATO's ability to quickly deploy its Response Force, which is skilled in managing crises and disaster relief and providing peace support. Teams are at the ready to enter places where we know major climate events will manifest. They can potentially address water shortages or protect and build infrastructure. The proactive steps could reduce the impact of climate change. 

Let's take the Syria example again, while climate change didn’t cause the conflict it’s exacerbated when we include the destabilizing impact of drought and climate change. If we can't help solve the water and crop failures, the other interventions will ultimately fall short because a conflict flash-point will still exist.

The same mentality could address areas where major forest fires, hurricanes, floods and cyclones increase. This would shift the theoretical approach to NATO's missions, and NATO would have to adapt the framework already in place.  

The good news is that NATO itself has a tradition of assisting in natural disasters in allied nations, and an established policy for assisting globally. And It is not unusual to see the military deployed during times of natural hazards and weather-related crises. For instance, In 2020 following Hurricane Eta, the British Army deployed soldiers to Belize to help with relief and recovery.

The operations and capabilities already exist. There needs to be an agreement to come together for a positive, preemptive response rather than only fight the “bad guys.” But imagine the incredible results possible.

Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., is an environmental scientist and a marine resilience specialist, working to bolster science in decision-making involving the environment, endangered species, energy development, sea-level rise, climate change and environmental hazards.