NATO's southern flank is under attack — from wildfires

NATO's southern flank is under attack — from wildfires
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NATO’s allies at its southern flank are combatting wildfires raging across member states including Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Croatia — presenting a new challenge to their security. The current phase of climate change indicates just how dangerous a threat it could be.

The Mediterranean is one of the regions most affected by climate change and has been a wildfire hotspot since late July. While climate change and global warming are not the sole causes, they do remain significant contributing factors. The number and magnitude of new environmental challenges such as wildfires increase each year and become more difficult to combat. Extreme heatwaves, strong winds, and wild storms make it an almost insurmountable task for firefighters to extinguish the fires.

The wildfires damage ecosystems that might further the effects of climate change. They also have devastating effects on economies and tourism sectors in the Mediterranean; many villages and resorts have been evacuated in the last few weeks. In addition to the environmental and economic impacts, these wildfires impact the security of the southern flank of NATO.

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NATO has actively adapted its planning and operations in the future security environment, understanding that military power will not be the only source of emergent new threats. Climate change is one of the challenges that NATO-member heads of state underlined as a key constraint that will further shape the future security environment in areas of concern to NATO.

The NATO 2030 agenda ensures that the alliance remains ready to face present and future challenges, including climate change and related natural disasters. Climate change is defined as a threat multiplier that has an impact on alliance security. NATO protects the territories and peoples of its allies against any attack or threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Resilience is essential for credible deterrence and defense and the effective fulfillment of NATO’s core tasks.

Climate change puts resilience and civil preparedness to the test.

It can affect the resilience of military installations and critical infrastructure by creating harsher conditions for operations — that’s why enhancing the resilience of NATO allies against such threats and reducing their vulnerabilities is a major responsibility of NATO.

NATO aims to become one of the leading international organizations focused the impact of climate change on security. Allies have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their military and political structures. Member state leaders have also initiated a regular high-level climate and security dialogue to coordinate further action. NATO leaders reiterated their commitments to strengthen NATO’s capacity to deal with threats and challenges emanating from the south, including the Mediterranean, by enhancing their force readiness to any threat.

NATO’s preparation and training to deter potential threats throughout the region is crucial. NATO should be ready to operate in all conditions, including extreme heat and cold, rising sea levels, and natural disasters.

The wildfires are a climate-led disaster that caught some NATO allies unprepared.

NATO’s support to fight against wildfires might help its allies become more resilient to these new security threats and challenges. This might help also add resilience to the southern flank of NATO.

NATO is not unfamiliar with relief operations after extreme events, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) provided medical, logistical and food supplies to the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NATO also provided food, and medical care, deployed engineers and medical units, and assisted in relief operations after an earthquake in Pakistan in 2005. NATO’s EADRCC played a crucial role in coordination of supplies among NATO allies fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to NATO’s EADRCC-led relief operations, NATO could play an important role by deploying fire extinguisher helicopters, firefighting planes, and other related equipment such as fire trucks and water tankers to its allies in need. These wildfires started in many different locations at the same time, rendering air intervention difficult with a limited number of firefighter planes and helicopters and other equipment. NATO should consider purchasing more of these critical vehicles and tools to support its allies in need.

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NATO urgently needs to adapt itself to new challenges and prepare plans to assist its allies most susceptible to climate change-led natural disasters.

The reality is that in the coming decades extreme heatwaves will continue and climate related disasters will occur more often than expected, leaving people less time to recover in between. The southern flank of NATO in the Mediterranean will likely be the most affected. NATO can and should play an important role in fight against the current crisis and assist its allies in planning more concrete action to become more resilient in the future. This seems a must for keeping NATO’s southern flank safe.

Aylin Unver Noi is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and an associate professor on international relations at Halic University in Istanbul. From 2014-2018, she was senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University SAIS.