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Facing sweltering soldiers and flooded ports, NATO to focus on climate change

Norfolk, home the largest naval installation in the world, experiences tidal flooding along the Lafayette River. (Timothy C. Wright/for The Washington Post)
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Hotter summers in Iraq are blasting soldiers sitting inside armored vehicles. Flooding is threatening the world’s largest navy base. Russian submarines are prowling the melting Arctic. Now NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wants to make global warming a major focus of the military alliance’s strategy and planning, pushing environmental issues to the center as a security threat.

The new push at NATO, which was approved Tuesday by alliance foreign ministers at a gathering at the headquarters in Brussels, signals a significant shift for the organization, which has traditionally guarded against threats from Russia and other political actors around the world.

Now, NATO will also try to incorporate a different sort of danger into its work, as climate change upends old security assumptions and creates new risks for democratic societies. Stoltenberg, a former U.N. special envoy on climate change, said he hopes leaders will use a summit later this year to pledge to make their militaries carbon-neutral by 2050.

“Climate change is a crisis multiplier,” Stoltenberg said in an interview. “Climate change will lead to more extreme weather, to droughts and to flooding, force people to move, to more fierce competition about scarce resources, water, land.”

For some time, militaries have incorporated thinking about climate change into their planning, mainly in terms of how it will create new security risks and threaten their physical infrastructure. But a truly broad-ranging focus on a full range of climate and security issues has been rarer, especially a push that incorporates an effort to eliminate their emissions.

The gap is partly a reflection of competing cultures. Climate change activists and experts tend not to be deeply steeped in military issues. And military officers usually focus on operational readiness above all else. That can lead to blind spots: Militaries control vast swaths of territory, for example, but lag in thinking about sustainable land management.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, is in some ways an unusual person who bridges both worlds. Early in his career he was the second-in-command at his country’s environment ministry. Much of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle, and some of the glaciers that Stoltenberg visited in his youth have now largely dripped away.

“You see the melting of the ice,” he said.

His focus on climate issues has been enabled by President Biden’s ascent to office after four years of President Donald Trump, who had called climate change a “hoax” and threatened to pull the United States out of NATO altogether.

In the United States, the Biden administration has elevated climate change as a national security priority, resurrecting an Obama-era focus on the impact of man-made changes to the environment.

Already at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has established a high-level climate change working group and said the Defense Department will incorporate climate change into military planning and war-gaming. In another shift, the Pentagon appears likely to incorporate climate change into its updated national defense strategy.

The effects of climate change pose special challenges for the U.S. military, with its sprawling global footprint and security mission which is sometimes linked to climate-related instability.

Military installations worldwide, including Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, Maryland’s U.S. Naval Academy, and Alaska’s Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station, are already being impacted by flooding, drought and extreme temperatures that scientists have linked to climate change. Other facilities, such as Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, have been hit hard by hurricanes or wildfires.

Norfolk — home the largest naval installation in the world — is a particularly dramatic example. Thanks to rising sea levels and changing ocean tides, floods are a constant feature of life there, even when it is not raining. Residents sometimes cannot move around because roads are covered in water. Seawater regularly seeps into pipes and other infrastructure.

The former president’s hostility to environmental issues put Pentagon leaders in a conundrum as they sought to respond to the effects of a warming climate, while steering clear of a politically charged discussion about its causes.

Most often, they did so by avoiding explicit references that could draw White House ire. One Defense Department report drafted during the Obama administration, for instance, was altered under Trump to remove most mentions of climate change, instead making reference to “extreme weather” or just “climate,” before it was submitted to Congress in 2018.

At the same time, officials continued to make plans under Trump to address the impact of rising sea levels on military facilities, while uniformed leaders talked about the need to respond to insecurity fueled in part by climate change in places like Syria.

Stoltenberg notes that greening militaries can also create opportunities. For instance, the fuel-filled tanker trucks that lumber along perilous roads toward military installations in Afghanistan and Iraq are among the most dangerous vulnerabilities in deployments in those countries. Installing solar panels, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and increasing the autonomy of those bases as much as possible could save lives, he said.

Biden’s climate envoy, John F. Kerry, met with Stoltenberg in Brussels earlier this month.

And Secretary of State Antony Blinken embraced Stoltenberg’s climate push on Tuesday, saying that “we share the Secretary General’s vision of the NATO that has the capabilities to deter and defend against all manner of threats to our collective security, including threats like climate change.”

Even the basic discussions could spark a cultural shift. Historically, militaries have been a major driver of technological change, with the Pentagon’s research arm famously inventing the precursor to the Internet. On adaptation to climate change, that has been less the case, experts said.

One basic challenge: The carbon footprints of national militaries tend not to be public, making it difficult even to diagnose the scale of that aspect of the work.

One recent analysis by the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a British-based advocacy group, found that the military and defense industry formed about 1.6 percent of Britain’s national carbon footprint, 1 percent of France’s, 0.8 percent of Spain’s, and 0.5 percent of Germany and Italy’s. The report, commissioned by a European political party that favors disarmament and reduced defense spending, acknowledged the difficulty of making the estimate. It did not include figures for the United States.

“This is a sector that was really kept off the hook so far” on climate issues, said Louise van Schaik, the head of the E.U. and global affairs unit at Clingendael, a Dutch international affairs think tank. “In the climate change community, there has not been much awareness about the size of emissions from the military.”

Stoltenberg said NATO’s climate efforts needed to stretch everywhere from reducing emissions to preparing for more challenges in the Arctic to designing uniforms to help soldiers withstand 120-degree heat in Iraq. It could even, he said, lead to fossil fuel-driven engines slowly being phased out of military vehicles.

“We have to be radical in the way we think,” he said. “It will be very strange if we end up with a world where we hardly have any fossil-driven vehicles in civilian society and that we have fossil-fueled vehicles in the armed forces.”

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Ryan reported from Washington.