Cover: Mischief, Malevolence, or Indifference?

Mischief, Malevolence, or Indifference?

How Competitors and Adversaries Could Exploit Climate-Related Conflict in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility

Published Nov 29, 2023

by Howard J. Shatz, Karen M. Sudkamp, Jeffrey Martini, Mohammad Ahmadi, Derek Grossman, Kotryna Jukneviciute

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Research Questions

  1. How might China, Russia, and Iran respond to climate-related conflict in the CENTCOM AOR?
  2. Are there climate-related policy tools that China, Russia, and Iran could use to their advantage relative to the United States if such conflicts arise?
  3. Are there advantages that China, Russia, and Iran could gain in the CENTCOM AOR from climate change?

Climate change is projected to affect the physical environment of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) significantly throughout the 21st century and could have consequences for security. How climate change might do this, and what these security consequences might be, are important issues for security planners. U.S. competitors and adversaries could have new opportunities to seek advantages relative to the United States.

To understand how China, Russia, and Iran might exploit climate-related conflicts, the RAND Corporation hosted a two-day workshop that presented nine scenarios with different climate hazards and levels of conflict to a panel of 11 subject-matter experts. The experts were knowledgeable about the overall global strategy, interests, and capabilities of China, Russia, and Iran and were asked to assess how these countries would react to climate-related conflict. This report provides the results of that workshop.

The purpose of this research is to support CENTCOM leadership and planners and their interagency partners to prepare for a future security environment that is affected by climate change. Understanding the frequency of future conflict in the AOR, as well as the evolution of threats under climate change, will enable the U.S. government to better prepare for this future. This report is the fourth in a series focused on climate change and the security environment.

Key Findings

  • China, Russia, and Iran would approach climate-related conflicts in much the same way that they approach other conflicts. China and Russia generally attempt to seek diplomatic solutions, whereas Iran uses its unconventional capabilities in conflicts.
  • The regional experts from the workshop did not engage with climate-specific policy tools in their proposed responses, regardless of whether those tools could be used as sticks or carrots. However, the workshop scenarios illustrated that China and Russia have a set of new climate-related tools to use in relationships with regional countries.
  • China and Russia continue to view the region as a priority, with stability the element of utmost importance. The regional experts noted that while Beijing and Moscow were unlikely to directly challenge Washington, they would take advantage of any absence of the United States in the region. Beijing and Moscow will also continue to make concerted efforts to avoid choosing sides among different countries involved in conflicts.
  • Given the United States' extensive security commitments and agreements, the potential for climate-related interstate conflicts across the seams of U.S. geographic combatant commands may force the United States to make difficult policy decisions on how to support long-standing partners and allies.
  • Climate literacy among regional experts would benefit from improvement. Further education related to climate change and its projected effects on the physical and security environment is necessary for military planners, operators, and intelligence professionals.

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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