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Obama’s Tweet on climate change and conflict: is he right?

By Alex Randall on June 4, 2015

Explaining complex global trends on Twitter is always difficult. Barak Obama proved yesterday that being the president of the US doesn’t make it any easier. He tried to express the complex relationship between climate change, human movement and conflict in a 140 character tweet.

Here’s the Tweet.

Is he right?

Perhaps it seems like hair-splitting to scrutinise one tweet with the level of detail that I’m about to. But arguably Obama is shaping the debate on climate change and its consequences. So some analysis is surely required.

Here goes.

Initially Obama claims that climate change will – or already is – leading to more severe natural disasters. This is undoubtedly true. Sure, he could have said “increasing the frequency or intensity of some kinds of disasters in some locations”. But he had to fit it all in a one tweet. Missing out the different role climate change plays in shaping different kinds of disasters is probably an acceptable compromise. There is strong evidence linking climate change to heat waves and extreme precipitation – leading to flooding. And the fingerprint of climate change is visible in a number of catastrophes such as the Horn of Africa droughts.

He next claims that these disasters lead to displacement. He’s correct on this count too. Displacement is always amongst the devastating impacts of most natural disasters. If we look back across the last decade of natural disasters the displacement of vast numbers of people is a familiar image. It is often the case that even after the initial impact of the disaster, people remain in camps or other forms of inadequate accommodation for years. Obama also states that disasters cause scarcity and stressed populations.

Finally Obama links these three factors – displacement, stressed populations and scarcity – to conflict. Specifically he links them to “global conflict”. This is where I think he’s in difficult territory. This is the point where – in my view – the balance between accuracy and jamming everything into 140 characters becomes a problem.

There is some evidence linking the impacts of climate change to increased levels of conflict. In fact the extent of this relationship was the subject of a huge academic dispute last year. What both sides of the dispute agreed on was that while climate change might be leading to more violence – it is by no means the most important factor causing conflict. Other political and economic forces will still be the most important drivers of conflict.

But this isn’t what Obama is saying. He’s arguing that climate change is going to lead to more “global conflict”. For a conflict to be global it presumable needs to involve more than one country. In fact the term “global” really suggest a large number of countries, from a number of continents all being drawn into a war.

There is little evidence that this will be a likely consequence of climate change. One of the things that academics consistently agree on is that climate change is unlikely to be a driver of inter-state warfare. It is unlikely to be a force that drives governments to use their armed forces against the armed forces of another state.

Obama’s tweet also reaches slightly beyond the evidence when it identifies the causal pathway linking climate change to conflict. The academic literature is still not at all clear on exactly how altered weather patterns lead to changes in levels of violence. While some researchers have found correlations between altered weather and upticks in violence, they have not conclusively identified exactly why one thing causes the other.

Obama’s tweet does, however, suggest a number of causes. Amongst them is displacement. There is little evidence that displaced people are a cause of armed violence. The existing evidence does not support the case that displaced people take part in armed violence, or that their presence leads to other groups committing more violent acts. It is far more likely that displaced people will be fleeing armed violence, than that they are the cause or perpetrators of violence.[/two_third_last]

This is an inaccuracy with consequences. It is not just an academic argument. Migrants and refugees already suffer shocking levels of violence and discrimination, often when they have reached places where they were hoping to find safety. One of the drivers of this violence and discrimination is the public perception that refugee and migrants are a threat, that they might carry out terrorist attacks or in some way disrupt a community or a country. A narrative which argues that displaced people might be a cause of war, terrorism or violence adds fuel to this.

So why has Obama made these connections? The Obama administration has rightly made climate change a key issue. Since the Democrats came to power in 2008 they have tried – with varying degrees of success – to legislate on reducing carbon emissions and broker various international and bilateral agreements on climate change.

This has obviously brought them into conflict with their Republican opponents, and particularly with parts of the Republican party that remain sceptical about climate change. This has lead the Obama administration to seek out arguments for action on climate change that might be appealing to Republicans – or at least be difficult for them to argue against.

The connection between America’s national security and climate change is key here. Obama (and other Democrats) have created a narrative in which climate change is a driver of terrorism and war and creates a threat to America’s national security. The Democrats’ hope is that by tapping into the traditionally Republican concerns of terrorism and national security they might go some way to neutralising the Republicans’ opposition to their climate change policies.

Has the strategy worked? It’s difficult to say. In general Republican politicians and commentators have not adopted these messages about climate change being a national security threat to the US. Climate change scepticism on the political right in America also remains strong. In fact the Republicans have even kicked back against the climate – security connections that the Obama administration has made. However, Obama has enjoyed a degree of success: he secured a bi-lateral agreement with China which could set the stage for a strong global agreement on climate change in Paris later this year.

However, we can still ask what the side effects of the Democrats’ narrative might be. The case I’m making here is that a likely consequence of making bold connections between climate change, displacement and war is that Obama has bolstered a narrative that fuels violence and discrimination against refugees and migrants.



By Alex Randall

Alex manages the Climate Change and Migration Coalition – an alliance that exists to challenge the lack of long-term strategies to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change.

Before joining Climate Outreach, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has also worked for the Public Interest Research Centre on their Values and Frames project. He co-founded Cheat Neutral, a spoof offsetting company, and UN Fair Play, an organisation that works with small island states at international climate change negotiations.

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