Young Leaders Hope for Action After the NATO Summit

By Elsa Barron and the IMCCS Young Leaders Network

Not long after leaders at the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius identified climate change as a “defining challenge of our time,” the alliance was called upon to support one of its members facing climate disaster. On August 7th, NATO responded to extreme flooding in Slovenia, providing support that included helicopters, modular bridges, excavators, and engineering expertise from more than five alliance members. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on a phone call to Slovenia’s Prime Minister,

“The increasing frequency of extreme weather highlights the profound impact of climate change.” 

In light of climate change’s particularly profound impact on young people and increasing importance to NATO, the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), with support from the U.S. Mission to NATO, sent us – a delegation of young leaders – to the 2023 NATO Public Forum in Vilnius. Our group included Pau Alvarez Aragones (Spain), Diana Garlytska (Ukraine/ Lithuania), Marieke Jacobs (Netherlands), Michelle Ramirez (United States), George Tavridis (Greece), and Ytze de Vries (Netherlands), accompanied by the Center for Climate and Security’s Elsa Barron and IMCCS Secretary General Sherri Goodman. We entered the Public Forum with a set of climate security priorities identified by a larger young leaders network and left Vilnius with three revitalized recommendations for NATO, below.

First, continued youth engagement is critical, and requires a strategic approach. In the future, we see value in connecting multiple existing youth initiatives across the alliance to create a more diverse network in which young leaders can collaborate to confront and prevent climate change risks. Furthermore, we emphasize the eagerness of young people to take action on non-traditional threats and believe that it is possible to connect young people representing all NATO member states if the right support for such an initiative exists. To move beyond tokenization and toward substantive engagement, young people and other under-represented groups must be involved not only as recipients of knowledge and skills, but also as contributors to decision-making and action-taking.

Second, it is important to include tangible steps toward action in all conversations about climate security, including high-level dialogues. There are a diversity of solutions already being implemented on the “ground floor” of a climate-affected world. Examples provided by scientists, military personnel, or peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development actors could reinvigorate and inspire policy action. Furthermore, in taking action on climate change, collaboration with Indigenous Peoples is critical. Often some of the most impacted communities, Indigenous Peoples also have deep connections to the land and possess traditional knowledge about its stewardship passed down for generations. The recent acceptance of Finland and Sweden into NATO presents new opportunities for such engagement and the Arctic Council has set a useful model of inclusion of Indigenous Peoples through its six Permanent Participants. The alliance could include permanent seats for Indigenous representatives in high-level conversations on climate security in order to drive more ambitious and inclusive solutions for all.

Third, NATO headquarters and leaders should prioritize engagement with its member states aimed at deepening their action on climate mitigation and adaptation. A suite of documents released at the 2023 NATO Summit provides a launching pad for this needed work. The second edition of the NATO Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment further solidifies the evidence base for the prominence of climate security risks across multiple regions relevant to the alliance and the urgency to act now. A Compendium of Best Practices on climate security action within NATO member states provides a foundation for fruitful collaboration between allies in taking urgent action. The publication of the NATO Greenhouse Gases Emission Mapping and Analytical Methodology is the start of a roadmap for reducing NATO’s emissions to meet its 2050 net zero target, which will help prevent climate change risks from multiplying further. While this emissions target and methodology applies only to NATO as an institutional body and not the militaries of its member states, it represents an opportunity for NATO to provide both the pressure and resources required for its members to follow through on similar commitments. 

As young leaders experiencing climate disasters across our home countries and watching them accelerate at a concerning pace, we know that security is not possible without action on climate change. We urge our leaders to act with this priority top of mind and work to build a world worth our imagination.