Struggles over drinking water, new outbreaks of mass violence, ethnic cleansing, civil wars in the earth’s poorest countries, endless flows of refugees: these are the new conflicts and forces shaping the world of the 21st century. Susannah Fisher looks closer at Climate Wars, noting that although climate change throws up many social challenges, of which worsening violence may be one, it could also act as a force for positive social change more broadly and a new development paradigm.

Climate Wars: What people will be killed for in the 21st century. Harald Welzer. Polity Press. March 2012.

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The image of barren desert on the front cover of Climate Wars, followed by the subtitle what people will be killed for in the 21st century forewarns the reader that this is not the most optimistic analysis of modern life, and this would be an accurate presumption.

Harald Welzer has written a bleak treatment of the relationship between climate change and violence, drawing expansively on historical and current examples from the disappearance of the Easter Islanders, the holocaust in Nazi Germany, to genocide in Rwanda, and the rise of the new EU border force that concludes without much cause for hope. The book offers much food for thought on the types of violence that may become associated with climate change, however there are other ways of thinking about our climate futures that Welzer doesn’t consider that may offer a little more light ahead.

Welzer sets up his argument by going through the causes of killing yesterday, killing today, and killing tomorrow in three chapters of these names. In killing yesterday, he argues that historical violence in Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Rwanda and Nazi Germany was about perception and framing, developing “us” and “them” mentalities that allowed these groups to murder others, believing themselves to be under threat. He describes how the changed realities of political or social shocks can often lead to violent problem-solving as individuals and communities readjust to their changed environment, and claims that the ethnic cleansings and genocides of the 19th and 20th centuries could be understood as the dynamos of modernisation. Following this reasoning, any other large social transformations such as globalisation or climate change could also lead to such forms of violence.

Killing today explores the role of frames of reference, over-crowding and metaphors in creating conflict. Welzer examines Darfur as the first “Climate War” and notes the changing type of conflict where simmering warfare continues as neither side can win decisively or has a real interest in securing peace. He goes on to argue that violence caused by climate change will not necessarily be wars between states to threats or territorial sovereignty but caused by shortages of drinking water, food, deteriorating health and living standards across certain parts of the world. This touches on one of the key issues of climate change and a central theme of the book, the injustice of the effects of climate change that will severely affect the populations that had no role in causing it.

Looking to the future, Welzer paints a picture of non-stop warfare, fighting on the borders, ethnic cleansing and increased inter-state wars. The example of Frontex, the European Border Agency, policing the European shores and the extension of European borders and controls out into the countries of origin, offers one way to imagine how countries in the West will seek to protect all they have as external pressures cause huge waves of inward migration. Welzer uses psychological reasoning to explore how climate change challenges our mental models, how we cannot see or understand shifting baselines and therefore make false decisions based on our imperfect understanding or narrative of the situation.

Finally, Welzer asks what we might do about this grim emerging picture. Here the book turns not to un-picking the link between increasing violence and climatic change but to addressing the causes of climate change. Welzer argues that we must use climate change as a foundation for cultural renewal.

Whilst Welzer paints a compelling picture of the types of violence and growing unrest we may face, his immersion in the detail and historical anecdotes obscures the creation of a broader argument. He documents the link and explores its multiple manifestations but the question is left hanging of what this means beyond the doom and gloom. This lack of an over-arching argument is felt most acutely in the concluding chapters when Welzer addresses climate change more broadly.

Welzer shows us that new forms of conflict and violence will be an important part of societal response to climate change. I suggest it is therefore something that we must engage with productively, and seek to transform rather than wringing our hands in horror and giving up. Adaptation to climate change is emerging as an important field and will be a source of new funds for developing countries in the future. This offers one opportunity to address the sources of growing climate violence and de-link violence with worsening climatic conditions. I may share Welzer’s pessimism on the state of the climate (even with a binding agreement we will experience a 2 degree global temperature rise), but this does not necessarily lead to fatalism about the direction of society.

There has been some debate within the social sciences on how climate change challenges social theory and how we can use climate change to encourage cultural change, social justice and societal transformations but Welzer sidelines these discussions and shuts down the option of a more optimistic future. Social movements, cities, and some nation-states are engaging in climate change action across the world and working through what climate justice means in these contexts. Climate change will throw up many social challenges, of which worsening violence may be one, but it could also fundamentally challenge our social assumptions and political framings, and act as a force for social change more broadly and a new development paradigm.


Susannah Fisher joined the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE, and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) as a post-doctoral researcher in September 2011. She works in the research stream on adaptation and development. Susannah completed a PhD at the geography department at the University of Cambridge on the politics and governance of climate change in India. Susannah has also worked in a range of organisations, including in the charity sector, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and a public sector consultancy. Read more reviews by Susannah.

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