News and Updates

Information and updates from the international crisis management space, including our podcasts, CCEM publications, webinars, and more. 

NATO Crisis Response Process and Climate Change

Nov 01, 2021

In October, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg travelled to Madrid in preparation for the next Summit to be held in Spain in 2022. During his press conference, Stoltenberg reiterated the Alliance's intention to continually adapt to the challenges of the future. In particular, the Summit will revisit the points of the NATO 2030 program, including the themes of resilience, cyber-defense, emerging technologies, and, last but not least, the impact of climate change on security.

Many have been surprised by the interest in a topic that apparently seems distant from the goals on which NATO was founded in 1949. While defense and deterrence, crisis management, and cooperative security undoubtedly remain the core tasks of the Alliance, it is necessary to remember that NATO is not an abstract body, but an international intergovernmental organization. It is precisely for this reason that it pursues the objectives that 30 nations set by mutual agreement, or consensus, adapting their policies and plans on the basis of these objectives. It is therefore not surprising that climate change has appeared on the agenda of the North Atlantic Council (NAC). Yet, is this merely a novelty?

Those who have followed the evolution of NATO over the years will have observed that the issue is not new in the milieu of the political-military alliance. NATO scientists and researchers have been involved for at least 50 years creating increasingly important standards and directives regarding the environment. Climate change was even included in NATO’s Strategic Concept of 2010 and a Green Defense Framework was created in 2014. However, since politics dictate the level of ambition of the Alliance, it is in the last two years that interest in this topic has received its greatest boost.

In this regard, during a discussion with the students in one of our "NATO Crisis Management and Disaster Response" courses (a joint venture between CBI and NATO CMDR COE), a student highlighted that climate change can certainly be categorized as a serious crisis that will affect everyone's security. Recalling the six phases of the NATO Crisis Management Process, he asked us whether the NATO decision-making process he had learned has been or will be applied to the issue in question. The answer is certainly in the affirmative, although this view must be carefully situated in the context.

The process is primarily designed to allow the relevant staff and committees to coordinate their work and to submit advice to the North Atlantic Council in a timely and compelling way. The illustrative phases are therefore not rigidly timed or separated, but rather can be of different lengths and may overlap as dictated by the circumstances. While none of us have been recently invited to the NATO War Room, we can imagine how these phases developed to address climate change.

At Phase 1 (Indications and Warnings) the Alliance normally receives indications and warnings, either by NATO’s intelligence and warning system or by an Ally or a partner. In the case of climate change, we may assume that scientists lobbied governments on the matter. (Whether politicians paid immediate attention or not depends.) Since, the extent of NATO’s interest and involvement has developed accordingly. Green Defense and other initiatives in the past years clearly show that some governments had brought the issue to the attention of the NAC and related committees. Indeed, the Council has considered diplomatic, political, and precautionary responses, including civil emergency responses, and also has taken military implications into account as appropriate, as suggested and proposed in the reports from International Military and Civilian Staff.  

At Phase 2 and 3 (Assessment and Response Options Development), the Council usually tasks the relevant political and military committees, based on full assessment, to provide advice on the developing crisis situation, and its implications for Alliance security. If this happened, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) must have developed a response strategy to climate change. Based on the results of this Political-Military Estimate (PME) process, the Council may have selected one or more of the response options and provided formal political guidance to the NATO Military Authorities (NMA) to conduct a planning process for the chosen option(s).  

It is evident that the process had been followed so far; the proof may be found in reading the summary published on the NATO portal a few months ago:  

On 23-24 March 2021, NATO Foreign Ministers endorsed NATO’s Climate Change and Security Agenda. It provides a 360-degree approach and encompasses measures to increase both NATO’s and Allies’ awareness of the impact of climate change on security, along with developing clear adaptation and mitigation measures, and enhanced outreach, while ensuring a credible deterrence and defense posture and upholding the priorities of the safety of military personnel and operational and cost-effectiveness. This approach capitalizes on existing initiatives, structures, and mechanisms, enhances and brings coherence to ongoing efforts, and identifies new policies and tools, where needed. It will allow NATO to respond to the impact of climate change on security within the framework of its mandate and purpose. Climate change and security is also an integral part of the NATO 2030 decisions taken by Heads of State and Government at the 2021 Brussels Summit.

With a NAC decision, the process proceeds to Phase 4 (Planning), where Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and Operations Plan (OPLAN) are developed and submitted to the Military Committee for endorsement and to the North Atlantic Council for consideration and approval. The Planning phase has certainly occurred. Indeed, the Alliance has now an Action Plan, which sets out the framework for delivering on NATO’s Agenda on Climate Change and Security, with an aim of contributing to NATO’s three core tasks and guaranteeing the security of the Alliance. NATO Public Diplomacy Division reported that “the Action Plan comprises specific goals for the Alliance, as well as tasks for NATO as an organization along with a mechanism to ensure monitoring, visibility and Allied ownership.” As part of this Action Plan, NATO will increase Allied awareness, adapt to climate change, contribute to the mitigation of climate change, and enhance outreach.

The “order to forces” to execute the OPLAN was given at the Brussels Summit in June 2021, where NATO Heads of State and Governments endorsed the Action Plan and decided to move ahead on this important issue. Therefore, the process moved into Phase 5 (Execution).

As NATO executes the mission, it will conduct regular assessments of its “ongoing operation” on climate change. The outcomes of assessments/reviews will then provide recommendations for changes to the Military Committee and the Council. To track the progress made, re-assess the level of ambition, and inform the way ahead, the decision has been to deliver the first Climate Change and Security Progress Report at the 2022 Summit in Spain. In sum, it is currently in the midst of Phase 5.

What about Phase 6 (Transition), where “NATO plans and implements a handover to the appropriate authorities, if needed, and progressively withdraws?”  Make no mistake: this will be a long way ahead. In this case, “appropriate authorities” means both individuals and elected governments (and/or politicians we voted for). None of us can escape from our climate change responsibilities. At the moment, we have no real exit strategy! On the positive side, be assured that all involved in emergency management will have job security for the time being!