How Climate Change Will Affect Conflict and U.S. Military Operations

By 2050, the models predicted, Iran could see 30 days a year when the heat and humidity pose an extreme danger to human health. Jordan could lose more than 70 percent of its surface water; millions of people there already receive water just one day a week. Rising sea levels could swamp an area of Egypt nearly the size of Rhode Island, displacing 5.7 million people.

The impact those worsening conditions will have on conflict might seem obvious. People might fight for water, or for control of the rare minerals needed to make electric car batteries. They could migrate into crowded urban slums, straining resources, or decide that joining armed groups provides their best chance for survival. Those scenarios all seem plausible—but existing evidence suggests the link between conflict and climate change is rarely so clear and direct.

Forecasting Models

RAND’s team turned to machine learning to provide some forecast for the future of violence in the region. They trained a computer to recognize patterns in past conflicts and to predict what will spark violence or unrest in the coming decades. The answer: mostly poor governance, economic hardship, and neighboring conflicts that spill over. Climate factors—measured by temperature and precipitation—made the list, but not as the sole or even main driver of conflict.

The computer forecasts identified Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan as the countries most likely to see conflict in the years to come. That could mean violent state repression, armed insurgencies, intergroup warfare—any violence that causes 25 or more deaths. The models suggest Iran could see more conflict and unrest than it does now. Afghanistan may see less.

But looking at the results, the researchers were bothered by the same doubt that comes with any future climate model. They had projected the risk of conflict based on its historical relationship to climate stress. But what if the future climate is not only much different, but also interacts with other conflict drivers in more dynamic ways, increasing the risk?


Climate change—under plausible scenarios like a major drought—could substantially worsen conflict in a way that most existing models don’t capture.


They decided to try an experiment. Rather than model climate impacts in general, they modeled a drought that dialed back economic growth by 1.5 percentage points overall, with agricultural regions hit hardest. The risk of conflict jumped in every decade between 2030 and 2070. The biggest increases were in countries with the highest risk of conflict to begin with: Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan. The results, they wrote, show that climate change—under plausible scenarios like a major drought—could substantially worsen conflict in a way that most existing models don’t capture.

“Here’s the analogy I like to use,” said Jeffrey Martini, an associate director of RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program. “Let’s say you’re living in Napoleon’s France, in the early 19th century, and you say, ‘Hey, I wonder what’s going to affect the future security environment in Europe.’ You’d look back at what had driven previous conflicts, and nationalism would not even be on your radar.

“But nationalism defined the security environment in Europe for the next two centuries. I don’t know that climate change is going to be the next nationalism, but it’s possible. And we need to grapple with that, because if we reach a break point and start to see more and more implications from it, we’re going to look back and ask, ‘Why didn’t we think that through?’”

Planning Implications
It might not take that long. The researchers flagged one simmering conflict that has the potential to become the first real water war of the 21st century.

Egypt’s fortunes have always risen and fallen on the tides of the Nile. But the river’s major tributary starts in Ethiopia. And since 2011, Ethiopia has been building a hydroelectric dam across that tributary—a dam that Egypt has described as a threat to its very existence. Both sides have threatened military action.

If it ever comes to that, climate change will be one of several reasons—a threat multiplier. Poor water management and population growth are also straining the Egyptian Nile. But climate change adds an element of uncertainty and could make Egyptian leaders decide they need to act sooner rather than later. “Let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water,” Egypt’s president warned Ethiopia, “because all options are open.”


CENTCOM may be called upon less to fight wars, and more to airdrop humanitarian supplies or evacuate people from disaster zones


For CENTCOM, the implications of RAND’s research and analysis are clear. Climate stress will become more intense and more frequent throughout its area of operations. It may be called upon less to fight wars, and more to airdrop humanitarian supplies or evacuate people from disaster zones. It should also plan to contribute more to stability operations in the region, working to prevent possible climate crises like the one in Egypt from tipping into open conflict.

It can’t do that alone. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) generally take the lead on humanitarian assistance missions. The United Nations and NATO oversee peacekeeping and stabilization efforts. CENTCOM will play a key supporting role, and it should update its operational plans to reflect that role in a changing climate. It might consider establishing a center that focuses full-time on climate-related security issues.

It should also look for ways to leverage its expertise—and the expertise of its partners in the region—to help countries weather the changing climate. Israel, for example, is a global leader in desalination technology. That could be lifesaving in other countries if their surface water diminishes. The United States also has a program that sends National Guard units with specific expertise—such as disaster response and recovery—to work with partner nations in need. Pakistan should be a top candidate for that program.

“We know that climate change is going to influence conflict, maybe as a threat multiplier, maybe as something more,” Sudkamp said. “But there’s also an opportunity for climate to become a low-stakes arena for countries in the region to come together and talk to each other. Maybe that can reduce the potential for some kinds of conflict, too.”

In Basra, the government’s fumbling response to water and electricity shortages helped bring down the country’s prime minister in 2019. Japan has since helped fund a $200 million water desalination plant. USAID helped modernize the city’s water delivery system. But the main river that feeds the city continues to recede, allowing saltwater to intrude from the Persian Gulf.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the city during another summer heat wave last year. “It was clear to me,” he said later, “that the era of global boiling has indeed begun.” Basra, he warned, “is a window into a future that is now coming for other parts of the world.”

Doug Irving is a communications analyst at RAND. This article is published courtesy of RAND.