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The clock is ticking

Harald Welzer's predictions in his book Climate Wars may be intellectually sound, but we hope he's wrong

The author's choice of sub-title—an offer to explain why people will be killed in the coming decades—is bound to attract attention. And to sound an alarm is precisely his intention: German social psychologist Harald Welzer wants to wrench us from our comfort zone, and recognise that our current lifestyle in the West will end if temperatures rise above two degrees by the end of this century. Despite countries' best efforts, staying within the limits of the Paris climate accord is widely viewed as highly unlikely.

The book's premise is that as resources become more scarce, fighting will break out among those trying to use them. This in turn will displace people, provoking violence between refugees and the inhabitants of their host countries. Some conflicts will be directly linked to climate change, such as the one in Sudan and South Sudan. Welzer argues this was ignited at least as much by the millions of people fleeing from land made uninhabitable by drought and famine as it was by ethnic tensions. He cites forecasts of between 50m and 200m so-called climate refugees by the year 2050.

Other conflicts may be less directly linked. Climate Wars is careful not to predict the future, but looks at existing trends to highlight dangers. When the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 stalled, troops had to be called in to restore law and order to New Orleans. What we often deem to be natural disasters—such as extreme weather—in fact have a climate-related cause, as hurricanes, tsunamis and floods increase in intensity and frequency. We've certainly seen our fair share this year, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma, flooding in Asia and fires in California.

Welzer contends that we've left the problem of climate change to scientists, but as with Katrina, it's really a social problem. After all, nature doesn't care if land is flooded or contaminated, and species die out as a result. Disasters such as flooding—but also soil contamination, drought, hunger, desertification, oceanic acidification and overfishing—affect poorer, less stable populations disproportionately, destroying the fabric of society and making the unthinkable possible. When this occurs in areas of existing conflict, the results can be explosive.

Even a sceptical reader will find some of this persuasive. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum. If new, dangerous ingredients are added to areas and situations which are already volatile, problems will be exacerbated, sparking new reactions and counter-reactions.

Welzer unflinchingly declares that far from being in humanity's distant past, mass killings may occur increasingly whenever human beings are perceived to be the problem. "Auschwitz and Hiroshima, My Lai and Srebrenica were social catastrophes that became possible only with modern problem-solving strategies, conceptions of order, bureaucracies and technologies," he writes. In the light of recent massacres, including those in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, it's hard to dispute that we've not learned our lesson from the Holocaust.

Bleak future

The unrelenting grimness of all this will be tough for some. Originally published in 2008 and now out in paperback, Climate Wars inevitably misses some more positive developments. While Welzer insists that technology won't help us get out of climate change since that's what got us into it, the rise of electric vehicles and the phasing out of petrol and diesel in many nations in the near future are surely reasons for hope. The same goes for the exponential rise of renewable energy. The International Energy Agency recently highlighted the rapid growth of solar and wind power in global energy supply—an average of 45.5% and 24% per year respectively since 1990. Much of this is being led by China and other developing nations, defying the notion that rapid economic growth means increased dependence on fossil fuels alone. Maybe all this isn't enough to prevent the two-degree temperature increase, but who knows what the next decade will hold?

Welzer is right that conflict is profitable for some. Trading in weapons, food or other goods in wartime and funding these activities with other crimes produce a cycle of violence, and this isn't a new phenomenon. But you might just as well make the point that a country like South Sudan has oil reserves, which haven't been exploited fully due to conflict. There's an economic benefit in peace as well. Oil may be a resource people can fight over, but it can also bring prosperity and stability. As its use becomes more efficient and energy sources more diverse, there's less reason to fear peak oil and its social consequences.

Solutions are hard to come by when the problem is everyone's responsibility and no one's. Welzer says Norway's ethical investment of its oil profits is a model for the future. Thinking about the kind of society we want is more effective than simply asking people to give things up, he says. That may sound optimistic, but the alternative could be worse. "Some books one writes in the hope of being proved wrong," he says. On that we can agree.

Climate wars: why people will be killed in the 21st century, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017

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