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Research Questions

  1. What does existing literature identify as casual pathways from climate change to conflict?
  2. Do these pathways identify direct or indirect links between climate change and conflict?
  3. Are there indications that climate-related conflict has already occurred or is occurring within the CENTCOM AOR?

An analysis of how climate change could lead to conflict is presented in this report. Although climate-related conflict can occur anywhere in the world, the focus of this report is on how this process has occurred and continues to evolve in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR). Much of the CENTCOM AOR is already coping with environmental stress caused by climate change and environmental management practices. Many of the factors associated with conflict (such as weak institutions and hybrid regimes) are present in the AOR, leaving the region vulnerable to the phenomenon of climate-related conflict.

The authors begin by presenting an examination of what the academic literature identifies as causal pathways that lead from climate hazards to different types of conflict: intrastate conflict (also known as civil conflict) and interstate conflict. After identifying the causal pathways, the authors analyze three cases of climate-related conflict in the CENTCOM AOR.

The purpose of this research is to support CENTCOM leadership, planners, and intelligence officers to prepare for a future security environment that is affected by climate change. Understanding the causal pathways from climate change to conflict should enable CENTCOM to anticipate how changes in the physical environment may reverberate in the security environment and when an area may be on a path to conflict or full-blown war that could lead to CENTCOM intervention. The report is the second in a series focused on climate change and the security environment.

Key Findings

  • Although climate hazards may have direct impacts on violence, the pathways from climate events to war involve multistep processes in which the initial hazard typically triggers several intervening steps before manifesting as high-intensity conflict.
  • The causal pathways from climate hazard to conflict vary but often begin with a hazard that results from a form of insecurity (such as food, livelihood, physical, or health insecurity) that then combines with climate impacts on state capacity, population flows, and other factors. When filtered through individuals' and armed groups' incentives to mobilize around greed or grievance, the impacts of these hazards culminate in conflict.
  • The causal pathways from climate hazards to conflict below the threshold of interstate and intrastate war are the same; what varies is the intensity of the ensuing conflict, not the path to get there.
  • In total, the research identified seven broad families of causal pathways — and many more individual hypotheses — from which climate impacts could evolve into conflict.
  • Climate-related conflict has already occurred in the CENTCOM AOR, contributing to conflict below the threshold of interstate and intrastate war.
  • The research did not find a compelling case of past climate-related interstate war in the region; however, there are plausible future contingencies for this outcome, based on analysis of the defense acquisitions of potential disputants.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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