Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue – it’s also a national security threat. Canada has offered to create a NATO centre of excellence on climate and security, which the alliance should move on with alacrity.
Describing climate change as “one of the defining challenges of our times,” NATO leaders at their June summit endorsed a Climate Change and Security Action Plan. It aimed to incorporate climate change considerations into defence planning, training and exercises, disaster response, and its procurement practices.
The plan intended to develop a “mapping and analytical methodology” for greenhouse gas emissions from military activities and installations. Data on energy demand and consumption would be used to inform operational planning, investment decisions and to implement innovative energy efficient technologies. NATO agreed to increase climate awareness among its members, do an annual climate change and security impact assessment, and collaborate with international and regional organizations such as the United Nations and European Union.
In support of the initiative, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told fellow leaders in June that Canada is ready to establish the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security to pool the alliance’s knowledge, initiate research and develop practical applications for climate mitigation.
The alliance members are rallying to the idea. Following Mr. Trudeau’s recent speech to the Netherlands parliament, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed that “Canada would be the perfect home for this platform,” given its commitment to the issue.
The NATO Centres of Excellence (CoE) grew out of the recognition in 2002 that the alliance needed new civil-military mechanisms – a combination of think tank and an applied technology centre – as it adapts to new threats and challenges. The first NATO CoE, on air power, began its work in 2005. Today, its 27 CoEs cover a range of threats, including cyber defence, strategic communications, naval mine warfare, terrorism and cold weather operations. Recognized for their technical expertise, they constitute a network of transformational support for the alliance.
With buy-in from alliance members, which means money and expertise, the Canadian-based climate and security CoE could be up and running by 2023.
American participation will be critical. The Pentagon, which is the world’s largest single energy consumer, invests billions to reduce its carbon footprint and prepare facilities against the effects of climate change. The Pentagon wants all non-combat vehicles to be electric by 2030. Renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, currently generate two-thirds of the energy powering U.S. naval bases. As the internet has proven, where the military goes, the civilian world often follows.
As a model for industry participation that will be vital to the success of the new CoE, we should look at Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. Since its launch in 2012, with its focus on greenhouse gases, land, water and tailings, this remarkable collaboration of companies has shared best practices and intellectual property to significantly reduce their carbon footprint and water use.
The location of the CoE will be a political call, but Winnipeg has a central location and anyone who has experienced its winters has certainly spent some time pondering climate. Importantly, Winnipeg is the Canadian home for NORAD, the Canada-U.S. continental alliance. Winnipeg also hosts the International Institute for Sustainable Development, has three universities and is home to the University of Manitoba’s excellent Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
In their June communiqué, NATO leaders described climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Droughts and floods in conflict-prone regions exacerbate water and food shortages, contributing to the displacement of peoples that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now estimates is at 82.4 million. Rising sea levels threaten hundreds of millions of people globally. Melting arctic ice opens new avenues to potential conflict.
There are no easy answers to these problems, but our citizens expect action. Pew surveys of advanced economies put climate change as one of the top international threats. The challenge for the CoE will be focus. Rather than boil the ocean, as they say, it should concentrate on coming up with practices and innovations enabling NATO forces to mitigate their carbon footprints and adapt to our changing climate. Mitigate climate change and you mitigate the threat of conflict.
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