Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 2 - Apr. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 24-27


Dr. Paul C. Rambaut,
NATO's Deputy Assistant Secretary General
for Scientific and Environmental Affairs

Recently, the environmental situation in a European country was described in the following terms:

"A great part of our forests is dying; you would be disgusted if you dipped your finger into some of our rivers: there are places where it is almost impossible to breathe. In these areas people die earlier and children are born ill. From time to time they are even prohibited from leaving the house or opening a window. I have seen a television commercial for gas masks for children to wear to school. Large areas of our country have been transformed into lifeless moon landscapes. Our food products have been contaminated for years now..."

These were the words of President Vaclav Havel of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, as he addressed Ministers of the Environment and others at the opening session of the conference Environment for Europe held at Dobris Castle near Prague last June. While Mr. Havel was speaking of his own country, he was certainly characterizing the en-vironmental legacy of Communism. Unfortunately, his words apply in an apocalyptic sense to the rest of the world as well.

Today, we are concerned with the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land on which we liveand work. We are worried about the damage being wrought to our natural resources and to our historical treasures. Our concern encompasses the survival of endangered plants and animals and the health of human beings. It embraces all forms of matter and energy deposited haphazardly by man throughout the land, sea and air. It even extends to accumulating debris in orbit around the Earth and to the cluttered wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

For several decades now, the environmental movement has gathered momentum. It has aroused citizens, spawned organizations and nurtured political parties. It may be surprising to learn that NATO has always stood in the forefront of this movement and continues to be active in it today. The roots of its involvement go back many years to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Implementation of Article 2 of this treaty eventually took the form of both scientific and environmental cooperation, first with the establishment of a Science Committee in 1957 and then of a Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society in 1969. In 1979, a Science for Stability Programme was added to the Science Committee's work to assist NATO members Greece, Portugual and Turkey in their own technological development.

The programmes of the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS) and the projects of the Science Committee include many environmentally related activities. Together with some of the activities of the NATO-affiliated Von Karman Institute, (1) these constitute NATO's environmental portfolio.

That our global environment is presently undergoing change at a rate not previously experienced has riveted the attention of the scientific community, policy makers and the public in general. Controversy, however, abounds. Some stress the need for immediate action while others first demand clearer evidence of the menace. All, however, agree on the need to understand the underlying processes.

Over the years, NATO has contributed to this understanding by supporting studies in such areas as Oceanographic Research, Air-Sea Interaction, Marine Sciences and in Global Transport Mechanisms. These various programmes have helped, in many ways, to develop and consolidate knowledge in the field.

NATO's newest programme in this global environmental area attempts especially to advance man's capability to predict changes that result from human activities including those that increase greenhouse gases in the troposphere and decrease ozone in the stratosphere.

A unique contribution

It might be asked why NATO should continue working in this field now that a complex network of international organizations has begun to operate with seemingly similar mandates. This question was thoroughly discussed by the NATO Science Committee two years ago before embarking on its latest programme. The Committee concluded that the specialized workshops and summer schools sponsored by NATO were not undertaken by other international organizations and were truly a unique contribution.

In addition to the science of global environmental changes, NATO studies have focussed on many regional issues. They have brought together experts from government, industry and academia to work on the development of less polluting engines and to recommend priorities to be pursued in national research and development programmes. A NATO study suggested by Norway recognized that the emission of air pollutants from large marine diesel engines is a major problem when ships are used in rivers and canals and other land-locked water courses. Ways might be sought to reduce these pollutants through changes in engine design and through the use of new fuels. Projects in Turkey are seeking cleaner ways to exploit that country's huge reserve of lignite for commercial use and to improve the design of the household stoves that now pollute the air in Ankara and other Turkish cities.

Various NATO studies have been directed at pollution of the oceans, rivers and ground waters. Rapid and unplanned urbanization of the coastal regions of the Marmara Sea, for instance, has led to drastic environmental deterioration. A NATO project was concerned with processes that could be used to treat the phosphates, borates and fluorides released from mines, fertilizer plants and other chemical factories around Izmit Bay in Turkey.

NATO studies led by France have focussed on the effects of shipping accidents and on the use of anti-fouling coatings. A study led by Italy has just been started to better understand the interaction of various elements of the sea-lagoon environment. This is stimulated not only by particular concern for the effects of land subsidence and of rising sea levels on low-lying cities but also for the effects of industrial, agricultural and urban pollutants.

NATO has assessed the economic, financial and environmental impacts of various inland water resource policies. A NATO project on a heavily contaminated river basin, that of the Ave in northern Portugal, gave rise to the first Integrated Water Resources Management Commission in Portugal and is likely to lead to the development of a water resources management framework for the entire country.

Man-made treasures are also an integral part of the environment which NATO seeks to preserve. A German led study of historic stained glass was prompted by the realization that damage tomedieval glass by acid rain has been so grave that, unless successful action is taken rapidly, very little of this unique part of our heritage will survive into the 21st century. A new protective coating has been developed that seems to offer for the first time good prospects of adequate protection. Damage caused to historic buildings by atmospheric pollution has also accelerated greatly. In a study led by Greece, the effectiveness of various stone protecting agents was evaluated and a data base on the state of historic monuments developed. Another study led by Germany is presently under way to evaluate the extent and causes of damage to historic brick structures and to identify methods for their preservation.

Impact of military activities

Military activities can also, whether in peace or war, damage the environment. The man-made conflagration in the oil fields of Kuwait, evoking an image of the nuclear winter that was the nightmare of an earlier age, the sight of tanks ravaging the national parks and historic cities of Yugoslavia, the sound of low-flying jet aircraft renting the tranquil air above Europe's fields and villages are dramatic examples. NATO has long acknowledged its unique capacity and responsibility concerning military-related environmental issues.

A series of international conferences and seminars carried out by NATO since 1980 have dealt with the environmental implications of military activities. Especially important has been NATO's recent development of a statement of principles for Environmental Awareness and Protection in the Armed Forces. These recognize that protection of the environment must be of critical concern to all armed forces.

NATO-sponsored surveys led by Germany and the United States have shown that the armed forces have already taken many actions to minimize water, ground and air pollution. The need to alleviate the nuisance caused by aircraft on low-flying exercises, to reduce the damage to training grounds from manoeuvres and to minimize the use of shooting ranges is well recognized. A current study led by the Netherlands is surveying opportunities within NATO for the wider use of simulators and a recently completed study led by Germany and the United States examined ways of reducing noise from aircraft engines, propellers and rotors both through engineering modifications and by operational changes.

Whether emerging environmental problems are global or regional, an effective response to them entails international cooperation. NATO could well have developed a unique capability in the international field not only for exchanging, but also for making practical use of, technological and scientific information. It is natural for it to draw on this experience to formulate recommendations which can stimulate national authorities to take action.

When CCMS was created in 1969, it was envisaged that the Alliance's environmental efforts would be outward oriented and that they might in due course involve cooperation between member as well as non-member states. This dimension was reaffirmed by Foreign Ministers at the meeting in Turnberry, Scotland, in June 1990 and a year later in Copenhagen. In particular, Ministers foresaw the participation of Central and East European experts in certain Alliance activities including those related to the environment.

The NATO Council has now endorsed a series of practical measures that will ensure much broader participation of scientists from Central and Eastern Europe in NATO's scientific and environmental programmes. Such experts have already been invited, for example, to participate in a new US led study of pollution control technologies. Participants in this study, managed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, considered it particularly important to involve representatives of the pre-market economies of Eastern Europe who might incorporate from the outset appropriate incentives against pollution.

In conclusion, it might be well to recall that on the 20th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1969, the then President of the United States, Mr. Nixon, declared that:

"We are all advanced societies, sharing the benefits and the gathering torments of a rapidly advancing industrial technology. The industrial nations share no challenge more urgent than that of bringing 20th century man and his environment to terms with one another - of making the world fit for man, and helping man learn how to remain in harmony with his rapidly changing world."

At NATO's 40th anniversary summit meeting in 1989, a continuing and expanding involvement of the Alliance in meeting these challenges was underscored when allied Heads of State and Government expressed their wish for NATO to embark on new initiatives that would give even greater impact to its scientific and environmental pursuits. (2) As we face the dawn of a new millennium, it is this mandate that underlies the cooperative efforts between NATO's 16 member nations and, to an increasing extent, between NATO and its new-found partners in Central and Eastern Europe.


(1) The Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, located in Brussels, is an international non profit-making scientific organization dedicated to post-graduate training and research in fundamental and applied fluid dynamics.

(2) For text of the Summit Declaration, See NATO Review, No.3, June 1989, p.28

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1992.