Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria, August 2012.Flickr/Christiaan Triebert.Some rights reserved.Over the coming weeks everyone concerned about climate change will begin thinking about how to convince President-elect Trump of its importance. Inevitably these discussions will turn towards making climate change a national security concern. Arguments that climate change might exacerbate conflict, migration and terrorism will be mobilized. Climate change will be framed as a threat multiplier.
New waves of migrants will spark conflict. Perhaps refugees fleeing war or drought will lead to the spread of terrorism. These are things that people across the political spectrum – including Trump supporters – are worried about. But the use and abuse of the idea of climate change as a threat multiplier is troubling.
The back story
It’s difficult to show a very direct, clear link between climate change and migration or armed conflict. Certainly patterns of both will change on a hotter planet. But no single episode of displacement or conflict can be pinned solely on climate change.
This is where the threat multiplier idea comes in. It would be an oversimplification to say that climate change by itself is going to cause wars. But increased levels of drought might exacerbate existing tensions and make an armed conflict more likely. When we think of everything as a threat, everything has to be responded to as a threat. Climate change has multiplied the threat of armed conflict. The same applies to migration and displacement. No single episode of migration can be pinned solely on the climate. But again, the role of climate change cannot be ignored amongst the causes.
It’s a neat way of expressing the fact that climate change plays a role in a wider, complex web of causes. It can’t be picked out on its own. But equally it cannot be ignored. Within that web of causes it magnifies existing problems. The idea of a threat multiplier does something very useful in capturing this kind of relationship.
The idea of climate change as a threat multiplier is used rather generally - and this is when it becomes a problem. It’s certainly true that armed conflicts are a threat - to the people caught up in the violence and to the stability of the places affected by conflict.
However, migration is often discussed as one of the “threats” that will be multiplied by climate change. It’s certainly true that patterns of migration will change as a result of climate impacts.
But discussing climate-linked migration as a “threat” requires adopting the premise that migration is a threat. And perhaps even that migrants themselves are a threat. Making this argument therefore requires adopting the anti-migration stance of the people we are trying to convince about climate change. A dangerous trade-off.
The implicit suggestion is usually that migrants and refugees are likely to create violence and instability in their new locations. People driven from their homes by drought or sea level rise might fight with existing residents. So climate change and climate-linked migration both get talked about as “threat-multipliers”.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, it’s fuelling public fear about migrants and refugees. It’s reinforcing the idea that migrants are a source of violence and instability. Secondly it isn’t true. There is actually very little evidence linking migration and armed violence. Refugees are far more likely to be fleeing conflicts that starting them.
Who is a threat, and who gets threatened?
The threat multiplier concept has been popularised by various military actors. It is used and developed by a number of military think tanks as a way of examining what climate change will mean for the military in the future. It is often used to mean a threat to the armed forces of developed countries.
This means that the idea of a “threat” has a specific meaning. In general it means a security threat to the interests of a developed country. It is often used to mean a threat to the armed forces of developed countries - if in the future they are forced to intervene in civil conflicts overseas. This is a useful way of thinking about how armed forces might be affected by climate change.
The point is that “threat multiplier” is not a neutral or universal term. It does not only indicate that climate change will play a role in making something worse. It implies certain problems will be made worse for certain people. Usually the problems are “hard security” issues like civil conflict and migration. And the people threatened are developed countries, their economic interests and their armed forces. The “threat multiplier” discourse also implies certain kinds of responses to these threats.
What do we do with threats?
When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
When we think of everything as a threat, everything has to be responded to as a threat. This might makes sense when considering actual episodes of armed violence. They are an actual threat. They are a threat in the sense that the Pentagon means. (US interest might be damaged, US forces might be at risk when they intervene in the conflict). They’re also a threat to the civilians caught up in the conflict.
But it’s difficult to see that applying the threat multiplier to any form of human migration is useful. Adopting the threat multiplier language when talking about climate-linked migration leads us down the road of a militarized response to this migration. Military attempts to stop people moving when they need to usually end in tragedy. And in the current political context, it implies adopting the anti-migrant and refugee stance of the people we are trying to convince about climate change.
It's true that talking about climate change as a threat multiplier might appeal more broadly across the political spectrum. But when climate-linked migration is talked about as a threat too, it certainly leads to troubling conclusions.