Climate Change and Conflict

Implications for U.S. Central Command

A traditional Marsh Arab canoe known as a Mashoof

Photo by John Wreford

Global climate change will hit the Middle East and Central Asia especially hard, with effects on both personal well-being and the region's security environment.

A map of U.S. CENTCOM's area of responsibility

The CENTCOM area of responsibility is made up of three subregions: the Levant and Egypt, the Central Gulf, and Central and South Asia.

Over the coming decades, climate change is projected to make the Middle East and Central Asia hotter and drier, with reduced access to fresh water. First order effects from these changes could include an increase in food insecurity, outward migration, loss of livelihoods, deterioration of public health, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters. Moreover, the impacts of climate change on the physical environment are anticipated to spill over into the security environment, likely creating increased demand for stabilization operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, and humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief.

Concerned about how climate change could impact security in their area of responsibility (AOR), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) asked RAND to help them better understand the role a changing climate plays in regional stability and how to mitigate potential threats arising from it. To respond to this request, RAND used a mixed-methods approach (e.g., climate assessments, quantitative analysis, qualitative analysis, and expert elicitation) that analyzed risks over the near-term (2035), mid-term (2050), and longer-term (2070) future.

The project team produced five reports that highlight what defense planners and intelligence professionals need to understand about the likely impacts of climate change on security in the Middle East and Central/South Asia. The reports take readers through a progression of identifying climate hazards in the region, understanding the pathways by which those hazards may contribute to conflict, projecting the frequency of potential future conflicts—including those in which climate is a contributing factor—in the region, analyzing how U.S. adversaries may attempt to leverage climate-related conflicts, and charting how CENTCOM can both mitigate the risk of climate-related conflict and prepare for specific interventions.

A Hotter and Drier Future Ahead

To set the stage for an analysis of the relationships between climate change and conflict in the Middle East and Central/South Asia, the project team conducted a regional climate assessment to quantify changes in key climate hazards—extreme heat, extreme cold, drought and long-term dryness, extreme precipitation, dust storms, and coastal inundation—and their effects on food and water security.

Nearly the entire region faces the compounding effects of high temperatures, drought and long-term dryness, which are all accelerating across the region. Hotter and drier conditions will make agriculture more difficult throughout the region, even in areas where warmer temperatures are lengthening the growing season, such as Central Asia. Many countries in the region will face a higher risk of flash flooding due to increased dryness coupled with increased extreme precipitation.

Regional Snapshots

A set of three info cards summarize the challenges of climate change for the regions within the U.S. Central Command AOR.

Pathways from Climate Change to Conflict

Having identified expected climate changes in the region and their likely first-order effects, the project team identified a six-step process in which climate hazards interact with other variables to produce both intrastate and interstate conflict (i.e., "causal pathways"). They then use these theoretical pathways to explore real-life ways in which environmental impacts have already contributed to conflict in the Middle East and Central/South Asia. In none of the examined cases is climate change the sole cause of the resulting conflict; rather, environmental factors—which may be exacerbated by climate change—interact with governance and socio-economic factors to contribute to conflict. This is consistent with the idea that climate impacts can serve as a threat multiplier when other conditions make an area ripe for conflict.

Incorporating Climate Change into Conflict Projections

Next, the project team turned to the relationship between climate change and the frequency of conflict, incorporating anticipated changes in temperature and precipitation into a machine learning-trained forecasting model. Although there is suggestive evidence that worse climate outcomes will correlate with greater incidence of conflict between 2040 and 2060, higher temperatures and decreased precipitation are not the major drivers of the future security environment. Rather, these hazards increase conflict risk by interacting with stronger predictors of conflict, including governance (which is partly based on economic performance) and recent conflict in a neighboring area. Importantly, the forecasts may be undercounting the impact climate variables have on conflict, given the model was trained on historical data, and climate change may contribute to conditions that shape conflict risk in a manner fundamentally different from those that characterized the recent past.

Adversaries: Mischief, Malevolence, or Indifference

The project team used scenarios and expert elicitation to consider how China, Russia, and Iran may attempt to exploit climate change to advance their own security interests. Climate-related conflicts in the region may serve as entry points for adversaries to gain advantage, exacerbate tensions, undermine U.S. interests, and challenge U.S. influence. Regional experts noted that China and Russia have a new and increasingly important set of climate-related tools—green energy capabilities and new trade routes, respectively—to leverage in relationships with regional countries. China in particular has increased its operations in the humanitarian assistance and disaster response in the region, potentially competing with the United States in this space.

The RAND team generated nine scenarios set in 2035 that varied across several dimensions, including type of climate hazard, type of conflict, and CENTCOM subregion. These scenarios were considered by experts who were knowledgeable about the overall global strategy, interests, and capabilities of China, Russia, and Iran.

Defense Planning Implications

The final report of the series examines how CENTCOM could use operations, activities, and investments (OAIs) in the coming decades to help prevent—or mitigate the intensity of—conflict related to climate hazards. Building on the analysis conducted in the second report, the team identified potential "off-ramps" along the climate-to-conflict pathways. The OAIs to address these off-ramps serve a dual purpose. First, they reduce the risk of climate-related conflict or reduce the intensity if conflict does occur. Second, they provide an opportunity to increase partnerships within the CENTCOM Coalition, and to build upon regional innovation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience.