West’s coming war with Russia will be triggered by Arctic climate breakdown

NATO countries are priming their citizens to prepare for the next global conflict between the great powers. Once unthinkable, the idea of a third world war seems closer than ever, writes Maurizio Geri.

Dr. Maurizio Geri is a former NATO analyst, an Italian Navy Lieutenant POLAD reservist, and a GMU postdoctoral researcher/EU Marie Curie Fellow who specialises in EU-NATO technology cooperation in the energy-resources-climate security nexus as well as Russian hybrid warfare.

The first shot was fired by Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s military committee and the most senior military officer in the alliance, who warned that as Russia will attack the West within the next 20 years, large numbers of civilians will need to be mobilised.

Several other NATO leaders have backed up this view. The head of the British army has demanded that Britons be recruited to a “citizen army” that can fight a land war with Russia.

The head of Sweden’s armed forces has declared that all Swedes must “prepare for war”. German politicians and military leaders have discussed the possibility of bringing back mandatory military service.

Yet none of these military officials or political leaders have mentioned the elephant in the room: the biggest likely flashpoint for war with Russia is climate change.

Over the next two decades, as climate change drives the retreat of sea ice in the Arctic, the probability of a Russian invasion to dominate the region – which contains some of the world’s largest untapped mineral and fossil fuel resources – will dramatically increase. Such an Arctic invasion would force NATO to act, likely leading to a major global conflict.

Currently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn the most scrutiny as an entry point for a broader assault on Europe. Yet politicians are failing to join the dots adequately.

Focusing on the war in Ukraine and the need to recruit citizen armies is a band-aid for a devastating global conflict scenario that could be avoided. That means grappling with the biggest enemy of all.

NATO has long recognised how climate change is a ‘threat amplifier’ for traditional security issues. Several NATO studies have warned that with the climate changing faster than previously thought, the danger of a military confrontation in the Arctic is rapidly increasing.

With the Arctic’s abundant natural resources, its ideal strategic location and its tremendous potential to open up new rapid routes for maritime trade, Russia is hell-bent on controlling the region.

As worsening climate change is melting more ice in the Arctic, sea routes and new opportunities for exploration and resource extraction have opened up. The accelerating Arctic melt has increased Russia’s military footprint and geopolitical influence across the region.

Putin sees Russia’s domination of the Arctic as critical to the economic survival of his regime over the next 30 years. The Russian Arctic is believed to hold up to 95% of Russian gas reserves and 60% of Russian oil reserves, yet unexplored.

Yet, in a situation of mounting Western sanctions and international isolation, opening up access to Arctic resources – which are also partially claimed by other NATO powers – could trigger a scramble for territorial domination.

Any large-scale military operation by Russia to capture the Arctic would trigger an unprecedented confrontation with NATO. And that could light the powder keg.

To reduce the risk of such a war with Russia, NATO countries should prioritise climate action.

While traditional military preparedness is necessary – and demonstrating that combined NATO forces are ready and willing to fend off Russian forces in a protracted land war will be a crucial deterrence – NATO governments must focus greater investments on prevention.

That means adopting a wartime-style mobilisation right now to combat climate change.

NATO has labelled climate change a defining challenge of our time and is committed to becoming the leading international organisation on climate and security.

Yet following the landmark COP28 global climate agreement to “transition away from fossil fuels”, known as the ‘UAE Consensus, NATO needs to supercharge its climate ambitions proportionally to head off the worst climate risks.

As COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber said after the UN summit: “An agreement is only as good as its implementation… We must take the steps necessary to turn this agreement into tangible action”.

That’s why NATO’s voluntary emissions reduction targets are not good enough. Instead, we need NATO armies to commit to mandatory targets. And that should include the milestone COP28 agreement to triple renewable energy by 2030.

Integrating the COP28 goals into NATO’s climate action plan will have resounding success simply because the hard negotiating work was already done at last year’s UN climate summit.

With NATO member-states already among the 198 countries signed up to the COP28 pledges, the next step is for NATO’s leadership to operationalise pledges into concrete action.

Yet NATO should go even further than this. Many scientists warn that dangerous climate change, including the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, may be all but inevitable even with radical emission reductions.

In addition to such reductions, NATO countries may need to consider the safest geoengineering solutions to slow or perhaps even reverse the Arctic melt. That needs a crash research programme authorised at the highest levels.

Because if NATO fails to respond to the climate emergency with the urgency it deserves, then we could face not just a catastrophic global war with Russia – but a potentially uninhabitable planet where no one is secure.

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