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Can Enemies Become Allies in the Fight Against Climate Change?

There are many incentives for cross-border military cooperation—even among adversaries—as climate change worsens.

By , a policy advisor and researcher based in London.
The Dead Sea shoreline is receding.
The Dead Sea shoreline is receding.
The Dead Sea shoreline is shaped by declining water levels in Ein Gedi, Israel, on Feb. 8, 2014. THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

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Two of the main themes discussed during the G-7 meeting in June were collective security and climate change action. But an opportunity was missed by separating the issues.

Two of the main themes discussed during the G-7 meeting in June were collective security and climate change action. But an opportunity was missed by separating the issues.

Recently, the U.S. and U.K. governments started to consider climate change as a security threat and a driver of instability, even referencing it in their defense strategies. One of the main concerns for both U.S. and British defense officials is that climate change can create conditions that will increase hostilities between or within nations.

These conditions include droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, and other natural disasters that may lead to food and water shortages, mass migration, and outbreaks of disease—potentially leading to violent conflicts over land or resources or civil outrage that could destabilize governments. Climate change also brings an emerging need for military forces to assist in relief efforts or fight under increasingly extreme weather conditions. The latter requires new ways of training as well as new equipment adaptable to extreme environmental conditions, such as prolonged heat waves and storms.

However, climate change should not only be considered a threat. It can also be an opportunity for cross-border collaboration. Indeed, transnational regional military and civilian collaborations may be able to do what trade once did for promoting peaceful relations between nations. Since climate change affects everyone and natural disasters strike indiscriminately, nations can look beyond ideological, ethnic, religious, and other differences—and even prior conflicts—to forge ties in a collective battle against something that threatens them all.

Training together as well as sharing information and technology might strengthen existing alliances and may help manage conflicts better if trust is built over time. It may also help prepare governments for tackling climate-induced crises better.

Peacetime military collaboration would be a key part of any such partnership. Armed forces are trained for deployment during emergencies. They have abilities that many nonprofits do not possess, such as machinery, equipment, and large, well-trained, and organized forces that include medics and are ready to be deployed quickly. They can be an effective resource to be used to respond to climate-induced emergencies.

Nations can look beyond their differences to forge ties in a collective battle against something that threatens them all.

Such cooperation offers real possibilities for improving interstate relations all over the world—and especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where tensions between countries are prevalent and where climate change will potentially have profound effects. Many cities on the Mediterranean coast, such as Alexandria in Egypt and cities in Tunisia and Libya, are at risk of flooding from rising sea levels. Water resources, such as the Dead Sea—split between Jordan and Israel—are shrinking due to rising temperatures and declining rainfall.

Droughts in Syria have caused mass migration from rural to urban areas. Climate change has also had a substantial, negative impact on the agricultural capacity of countries in the region. Violent storms have caused flooding in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Extreme and prolonged heat waves of more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit have been endangering the lives of millions of people in Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere. Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, the UAE, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Oman all suffer from a limited supply of water.

These conditions have had a destabilizing effect on countries, both internally—by driving demonstrations and economic instability—and by increasing tensions between countries. Disputes over water resources, for example, increase tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, where there is a major water shortage. More than 90 percent of the water in Gaza is not suitable for drinking due to high salinity levels and pollution from sewage, and the majority of drinking water comes into Gaza from Israel. Tensions over water resources in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which is shared among Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, have exacerbated friction between the three countries.

Many Middle Eastern countries do not possess the knowledge and technology to help them grow food under progressively arid conditions, making them increasingly reliant on imports. This increases food prices, which can cause civil unrest, as happened in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia prior to the 2011 Arab Spring. Knowledge about building in a way that prevents flooding and is energy efficient is also largely absent. Many countries also lack the resources to single-handedly keep their populations safe and provide relief to areas hit by disasters. Governments are therefore worried about the instability climate change has and is likely to continue to cause. These are all incentives for cooperation, even with adversaries.

There are already collaborations between countries in the Middle East; Israel and the UAE have been collaborating on environmental issues since signing a normalization agreement in 2020. These include sharing advanced Israeli technology in the renewable energy and agriculture fields, such as drip irrigation, which optimizes the use of water and increases productivity. This is mutually beneficial and has the potential to strengthen economic and diplomatic links between the two countries.

Israel and Jordan have had a long-term collaboration on building a pipeline to move water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea to prevent it from shrinking further due to desertification. Collaboration between the neighbors started after they signed a peace treaty in 1994. Before that, disputes over the Jordan River and unilateral water development projects were a major driver of conflict between the two states. Israel’s former chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, has recently called for closer coordination between Israel and its neighbors on tackling environmental disasters as a way to improve relations and enhance Israel’s security.

These partnerships are welcomed, but they tend to be bilateral or involve only a handful of countries that already have established diplomatic ties. And they do not tend to include plans for joint military efforts in cases of natural disasters or humanitarian crises.

Some collaborations are more likely than others. Israel, for example, will collaborate with countries it has diplomatic relations with but will be reluctant to cooperate with its enemies, such as Iran and Syria. Additionally, some governments, especially nondemocratic regimes, may prefer not to collaborate because they actually want climate-based disasters and the ensuing political upheaval to bring instability to their opponents.

Still, there are several incentives for collaboration, even between adversaries. They include facing a mutual threat more effectively and potentially improving national security by building ties with countries there is no diplomatic connection with. This is particularly important for countries that share a border and, therefore, could be hit by common climate disasters, such as wildfires or floods. Sharing resources instead of facing the financial burden to reequip, train, and mobilize forces unaided can be a financial incentive for cooperation.

The Iranian government is currently experiencing widespread anger over water shortages. Severe droughts amplified the war in Syria. However, collaborating with other nations and having regional environmental agreements can enhance governments’ ability to help their populations during crises caused by climate change, potentially minimizing political instability and therefore acting as an incentive to look past political disputes.

The United Nations established six regional collaboration centers (RCC), with the Middle Eastern one based in Dubai since 2019. Several problems are preventing it from having a major impact in the region. It is not inclusive as it only covers Arab countries. Its collaborative potential is limited since countries are not active players in the RCC Dubai, and it lacks mechanisms that establish cooperation and promote engagement. (For example, only nine countries responded to its recent survey.) The RCC provides advice and runs workshops but does not promote military ties for addressing relief efforts.

Joint efforts can be more about coordination rather than about collaboration that will require revealing information.

Establishing a multilateral regional council or alliance can benefit all involved. Areas of cooperation can include sharing and developing technologies for irrigation, cleaner and renewable energy, and sustainable development initiatives. Binding agreements relating to the prevention of environmental damage, such as air and water pollution, are also essential not only for environmental reasons but for not aggravating neighboring countries.

Coordination is key for ensuring countries refrain from commencing unilateral projects that can affect other countries’ water quality or supply, potential for floods, and other concerns to avoid risks to populations and reduce tensions and threats of conflict. A primary example of this is Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which has exacerbated tension with Egypt and Sudan over access to the Nile’s water.

A central element will be establishing military collaborations for providing coordinated emergency relief in case of natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and other emergencies caused by climate change that are too major for countries to deal with on their own. Collaboration between military forces will have several benefits. Self-reliance is one: The region will develop expertise to respond to climate emergencies and the ability to respond without the need of outside help. Assistance will arrive quickly, and it will be an effective, coordinated effort by forces that are equipped for this, have trained together, in most cases speak the local language, and are familiar with the region.

The effects of climate change pose regional threats that surpass religious, ethnic, and geographical grievances. Therefore, collaboration should be undertaken between countries that do not have peace normalization agreements or formal diplomatic relations and help reduce tensions and build trust even between countries that are currently engaged in conflicts—without undermining political autonomy. Such regional military collaboration will strengthen both state authority and legitimacy as well as civil society as populations become safer and cross-regional security becomes the norm.

Due to the many tensions and conflicts between Middle Eastern countries, having third-party countries help negotiate and coordinate the establishment of regional alliances can be helpful. The United States can be a major player; in a partnership that includes military forces, the U.S. Central Command (or Centcom), which is responsible for the Middle East-North Africa region and now also includes Israel, and can help coordinate joint training exercises.

This means Israeli, Saudi, Egyptian, and Iraqi forces, for example, may be able to train specifically for joint relief missions and help with equipment and specialty training from the United States without sharing knowledge and technologies that might expose secrets and compromise each country’s security.

Balancing cooperation with limited disclosure of capabilities will be key to countries not compromising their security. Joint efforts can be more about coordination, particularly when it comes to countries with no peace or normalization agreements, rather than about collaboration that will require revealing information or exposing foreign forces to technologies that are best kept secret. Participating nations can review the extent to which they are willing to share information and technology when collaborating to tackle environmental disasters.

Third-party countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, can fulfill an oversight role to prevent corruption, ensure transparency, and help with coordination and conflict resolution within the alliance. They can also assist with training and providing expert knowledge. In fact, a U.K. Ministry of Defence document titled “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach,” published in March, expresses a desire for the U.K. to be involved in such undertakings by mentioning, although briefly, that it should “try to build a coalition of militaries working to achieve commitments on adaptation, resilience and mitigation.”

This is no simple task. Some countries will resist this, either by refusing to collaborate with enemies or because they see continuing instability in the region as serving their own interests. The lack of shared values can also be an impediment. However, alliances between nations with different ideological perspectives or competing interests when faced with a mutual enemy—such as the United States and Soviet Union fighting Nazi Germany—are not uncommon.

As disasters strike harder and more frequently, nations may be willing to put aside differences to work jointly on this very specific issue. Establishing military and economic cooperation on a narrow theme could have wider positive implications for collective and national security and stability in that war-ravaged region.

Limor Simhony is a policy advisor and researcher based in London. She was previously the director of counterextremism at the political consultancy firm TRD Policy and a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. She holds a doctorate from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @limorsimhony

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