The polarizing debate over climate change's role in polar ice melting is a dynamic of America's domestic politics, not its defense partnerships.
"There is a very respectable body of scientific evidence for climate change, and for linking that with human activity," said Bryan Wells, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's chief scientist. "The Arctic is experiencing climate change at a greater pace and at a greater scale than the global average."
Speaking from NATO Headquarters in Brussels before a virtual Global Minnesota event on Thursday, Wells said in an interview that climate change is "directly affecting our own military and operations, and secondly, the sorts of areas where NATO might be called on in the future to lend assistance in humanitarian areas."
NATO, Wells said, "can anticipate greater humanitarian impacts from the increase of extreme weather that we are already seeing, that we can predict will increase in frequency and scale.
"We can already see a migration of peoples caused by shortages of water and other climatic incidents; all of these affect security. And if it affects security, it matters to NATO."
And so what matters to NATO is that global warming can trigger hot wars in portions of the developing world or reheat the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. in places like the Arctic, the subject of this month's Great Decisions dialogue. Accordingly, NATO relies on real science, not unreal rhetoric, to assess how climate change affects threat assessment and military preparedness.
The risk of conflict in the Arctic, for instance, is rising along with temperatures, potentially affecting those NATO nations that are part of the eight-nation Arctic Council, which bills itself as "the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic." On Thursday, the council's rotating chairmanship went to Russia, which according to an Associated Press report "has sought to assert its influence over wide areas of the Arctic in competition with the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway as shrinking polar ice from the warming planet offers new opportunities for resources and shipping routes. China has also shown an increasing interest in the region, believed to hold up to one-fourth of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas."
That concerns other council nations, as well as Indigenous Arctic citizens.
"We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday as he arrived for foreign minister-level discussions regarding the Arctic. "That increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region. So we have to be vigilant about that."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, seemingly responding to such calls for vigilance, was vicious in his comments on Thursday. "Everyone wants to bite us or bite something off us, but those who would like to do so should know that we would knock their teeth out so that they couldn't bite," Putin said.
Whether that's a toothless threat or a more dire sign of Arctic conflict is unclear. But Wells said that "Many countries will have their defensive security affected by changes in the Arctic; we see the opening of new sea routes, including those of allies — it will be a contested environment.
"My role here is to provide the best science that I can to inform NATO and its allies of the changes that are occurring, how it impacts on NATO's military operations so that politically NATO and the allies will be well placed to make their political judgments."
Those political judgments on security issues grow increasingly complex, just as technology does.
Citing advances in "fast jets, the next generation of submarines, precision-guided munitions," Wells said that the 6,000 scientists affiliated with the alliance currently work on weapons systems or other "emerging and disruptive technologies" like artificial intelligence that are crucial, too.
And sometimes the concerns include artificial information — or disinformation — deployed asymmetrically against military and civilian targets, making the application of social science as important to NATO as physical science.
"The impact of disinformation to our publics, it's something that in the defense and security field we've been well aware of for quite a while," Wells said. "We did a lot of work specifically on COVID-19 disinformation to help the allies, to help NATO itself, rebut the sorts of claims that would come in. But that is just one part of what we could call cognitive warfare, making sure that we can defend ourselves against the sorts of information that will be received by our publics, that may be received by members of the armed forces. To do that we need a good understanding of the latest social media, a good understanding of the use different sectors of the public make of different types of social media, and also a good understanding of the sorts of techniques that are being used."
Perhaps speaking with typical British understatement, Wells, a former U.K. defense official, said, "When we look at new technologies, the pace of change is challenging, but also the scale of new sciences that are now available."
Including Zoom, which is how the interview took place. When asked if a similar conversation was conducted in person when NATO was established, or in more recent years, Wells said, "If we wind the clock back the 70 years of NATO, even 10 years, there were still only three military domains: air, land, and sea. And in the last 10 years, NATO has added cyber and space to those domains. The scope of the science has changed as well.
"I would add two other things that when we were talking over a beer 70 years ago we could take for granted that is no longer the case: We maintain cutting-edge science, but we need to work and go that extra mile to make sure we do that. The top 18 universities in the world are on the soil of NATO allies, so they're on the front foot on this, but we can't flatten out the pace."
The pace of change, be it climate patterns or the climate of disinformation, weapons development, and social-science trends, will continue to be quick.
But Wells concluded reassuringly about what wouldn't change.
"The secretary-general made very clear when he launched his NATO 2030 initiative that in relation to new technologies, he wished to maintain the technological edge, but consistent with the norms and values of the alliance," Wells said. "We do need to be aware that there is unease in some of the potential trends that science can take us. But NATO is clearly under political leadership. And that political leadership is clear that the use of new technologies will reflect the norms and values of its societies."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport. Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the "Great Decisions" dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.