Climate Security in Central Europe: Challenges and Opportunities – Summary of a Public Workshop

On November 25, 2022, the Institute for central Europe (ICE) held an online workshop entitled “Climate Security in Central Europe: Challenges and Opportunities.” This was one of three parts of a broader project on climate security that ICE has been implementing in the fall of 2022. The project (ACCESS – Addressing the Challenges of Climate, dEfence and Security nexus) has been funded through NATO Public Diplomacy Programmes, and its goals include – within the Slovak context – awareness raising on the climate-security/defense nexus, seeking innovative ideas and solutions to the issues of climate security, and finding opportunities to link NATO’s past, current, and future efforts with Slovak climate security needs.

Within this project, the purpose of the public workshop was to discuss with various experts and the public climate security in general and within Central European context and Slovakia in particular. The workshop was divided into two parts. In the first part, invited speakers from the University of Liege in Belgium (keynote), NATO, and the Slovak Ministry of Defence (MOD) spoke about climate security within their respective areas of expertise. The second part of the workshop opened with an academic panel with speakers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Bath, and the European Leadership Network. 

Several main takeaways arise from the first part of the workshop. While the public and the media tend to focus on the conflict potential of climate change, for armed forces there are also other concerns that are both operational and strategic. Operationally, military adaptation to climate change is crucial since most of the current equipment (e.g., sonars, helicopters) does not function properly in warmer climates. Military bases around the world are vulnerable to the sea level rise and desertification. There is also a need for long-term planning and investment that incorporate climate considerations and a methodology for assessing the vulnerability of the bases in light of climate change. 

In terms of strategic risks for armed forces, the key missions of the armies are changing with the growing requests for post-disaster humanitarian assistance and emergency relief. Many national armies are lacking sufficient equipment and training for such missions. One short-term solution is more cooperation with the civil society. Another strategic risk is the potential internal destabilization of countries due to effects of climate change, with cascading regional impacts. Potential tensions around land and food supply cannot be overlooked as these also provide opportunities for extremist recruitment and growth of extremist ideologies as the legitimacy of many states weakens. A remedy may be addressing the cause rather than mere symptoms of instability – for example, addressing the root causes of land degradation and incorporating such objectives into defence and security doctrines. 

Overall, we need a better understanding of cascading effects of climate change. We also need a greater cooperation among the defence and security community, between countries, and within organizations like NATO. There is a further need to adjust defence thinking to account for altered landscapes and the changing climate in recruitment and personnel training.

Technology transfers from the Global North to South are essential – Europe must invest into resilient infrastructure and climate technologies now and transfer those technologies to Africa and Asia. Such investments, especially in energy infrastructure, have future geopolitical implications. 

Considering the challenges of climate change, NATO and its member states, including Slovakia, have produced a number of strategic documents, action plans, and toolkits with best practices for both climate adaptation and mitigation. Climate change is a priority for NATO whose current commitments include reduction of GHG emissions from military activities and facilities as well as plans to increase awareness and data sharing. The 2021 NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan sets out to increase awareness, adapt, contribute to mitigation, and enhance outreach with partner countries and organizations. NATO’s strengths in climate security are leading by example, setting standards, advising, and providing a forum for discussing best practices. To varying degrees, militaries across the Alliance are prepared to engage in humanitarian rescue and disaster relief. However, acquiring sufficient equipment with the right type of equipment is crucial. It is also imperative for NATO to work with academia, industry, member states, and other partners, and to keep investing in both the military and climate to ensure regional and global security. 

Slovakia is also aware of climate security challenges and opportunities. The Slovak MOD aims to initiate interdepartmental discussions to help reduce the impact that departmental activities have on the environment – this includes both the ministry and the armed forces. Target areas include energy consumption, energy efficiency, and green procurement as well as a reduction in GHG emissions produced by the civilian motor vehicle fleet. There is currently no legislative requirement to reduce GHG emissions from the military vehicles, and a more significant application of green initiatives on the Slovak armed forces is lacking. Reasons include lack of awareness of the problem or of suitable solutions; although, the Department plans to work on addressing these issues through the use of various toolkits and awareness programs. A key issue for the near future is the readiness of the armed forces to face the risks of climate change, both from an operational and strategic perspective. 

In the second part of the workshop, panelists addressed questions of preparedness and future needs in climate security of Central Europe. Among the main regional security concerns are the weaponization of narratives that use migration and nationalism, and the general ability of adversaries to strategically use climate change to undermine democratic institutions. For Central Europe, climate change is not a distant phenomenon; it will affect energy security and infrastructure, among many other things. 

Potential solutions to the challenges of climate security in both Central Europe and Slovakia include a private-public cooperation and a better communication of the costs of climate change, both human and financial. It is also crucial to increase state capability to respond to major disasters and its ability to house (and provide services to) migrants, and in general, to increase strategic foresight capabilities. Since national lens may be unfeasible in the Central European context with sharp divergences in energy and other policies, focusing on common context, common frameworks, and common ways of looking at the problem and solutions may be more productive. Both for NATO and its members, it is crucial to invest in new technologies, allocate some defence spending to R&D, ensure interoperability, provide political incentives to large defence companies, and bring start-ups into the discussion.