Category: Non-fiction

Harald Welzer
Klimakriege - Wofür im 21. Jahrhundert getötet wird
[Climate wars - What people will kill for in the 21st century]


In 2005 hurricane Katrina ravaged through New Orleans. A year earlier, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean resulted in the loss of more than 200,000 lives. The images of destruction and human affliction that dominated the media were etched into the world’s collective memory. The Society for the German Language chose “Climate catastrophe” as the “Word of the Year” in 2007.

In Climate Wars, Harald Welzer examines the relationship between climate and violence. Welzer deliberately speaks of “social catastrophes” instead of “climate catastrophes” since occurrences in nature only become catastrophic events due to the consequences they have for the human beings who are forced to react to changes in their environments in order to stay alive. Welzer maintains that, in such situations, violence can become a viable option for the afflicted parties – and not only at some point far off in the future. In Darfur a war is already being waged that was largely caused by the struggle for dwindling resources – in other words, a “climate war”. Harald Welzer presents a haunting depiction of the social consequences of climate change, arguing that their impact will lead to greater social inequalities around the world.

Welzer sees no need to debate the existence of climate change or the relationship between the greenhouse effect, global warming and industrial CO2 emissions. Prior to the outset of the Industrial Revolution, there were 600 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Over the last 200 years, that number has risen to 800 billion – and there is no end in sight due to the industrialization underway in developing nations. In order to keep global warming in check, the Earth’s temperature must remain less than two degrees Celsius warmer in comparison to the pre-industrial age. Global CO2 emissions will thus have to be reduced by at least half over the next 50 years.

Welzer considers this goal to be highly unrealistic, if not altogether unachievable. In view of this, he illuminates the impact of climate change on the human environment, noting that not all regions of the world are affected to the same degree. Africa is among the hardest hit continents. The already precarious supply of potable water will become even more dire, while entire industries, such as agriculture and fishing, will be threatened in their very existence due to lack of water, soil degradation and the extinction of various species. South America will suffer from sinking groundwater tables and desertification. Deforestation will intensify erosion and increase the danger of flooding. In northern zones, on the other hand, new agricultural sectors will emerge, for example, winegrowing.

One of the most salient injustices of climate change is the fact that the nations most adversely affected by it are the ones that caused it the least. They are also the nations with the least amount of means at their disposal to absorb the social consequences of climate catastrophes. Whereas countries in North America and Europe are able both to ensure that their populations have enough to eat and to provide substantial support for damages incurred, poorer nations are wholly at the mercy of such massive environmental transformations. Various groups thus vie for dwindling resources. Oftentimes, it’s not only the state that resorts to violence, but also quasi-autonomous and paramilitary units as well: “The collapse of the state and society at large provides ample opportunity for the brutal enforcement of personal interests and for an elusive spectrum of criminals and violence.” The result is “permanent wars”, whose stakeholders often have little interest in ever seeing them end since violence perpetrated against the general population guarantees aid from the West. For OECD nations, in turn, “humanitarian aid” to war zones represents a “reduction in dissonance” – that is, their social conscience is relieved.

Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans gave us the expression “climate refugee”. Welzer employs this term with regard to the continuing influx of migrants from the hardest hit countries. To keep the consequences of climate change “at bay”, OECD nations have taken to closing their border. “Frontex” is the name of the powerful and largely autonomous border security agency of the EU. As reception camps shift national borders so that refugees find themselves back in their countries of origin, governments increasingly allow private security firms to carry out violent campaigns that they cannot be held accountable for.

Thus, climate change indirectly pressures even the West to act: it “perceives dangers” and takes the appropriate steps. These, however, tend to be based more upon perceived, instead of objective dangers. The notion of what steps are to be considered “appropriate” changes as well. Harald Welzer discusses this phenomenon of “shifting baselines” in great detail. As an example, he cites the laws which are meant to improve the security in western nations in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but which have curbed citizens’ rights. Welzer asserts that surveillance of suspicious activity and digital fingerprints in identification cards were unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet since the terror attacks in New York and the growing sense of insecurity, large portions of the population have come to welcome such measures. According to Welzer, these “shifting baselines” can even make killing people appear both normal and reasonable, as evidenced by the murders of millions of Jews during the Shoah. Violence against Jews became so “normal” that Nazi ideology was able to take it to its logical conclusion: the “final solution”.

Killing thereby becomes a logical component of enlightened modernity. As a result, Welzer understands genocide as a consequence of progressive society, not as an “accident”. For Welzer, the anticipated “climate wars” are closely linked to the social model propagated by the West and to the “globalized economic system based on growth and the exploitation of natural resources, a system that cannot function as a worldwide principle.” Welzer’s proposed solutions to the problem take this into account. He argues that specific individual and national measures intended to combat the situation are quantitatively and qualitatively insufficient, whereas agreements at an international level are unlikely. He thus proposes that citizens should be granted greater opportunity to participate. It is up to every individual to decide how he or she wants to live in the future and how humanity as a whole should progress over the long-term. That would enable individuals to assume more responsibility for specific problems, whose origins may lie in the past, but whose solutions lie in the future. However, in light of the harrowingly catastrophic future awaiting us, that won’t be enough to remedy humanity’s “obliviousness of the impending apocalypse”.

And so, a final “solution” remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Welzer has clearly succeeded in revealing the enormous dimensions of the problem. His Climate Wars represents an important contribution to the public debate on climate change. The various findings his arguments are based upon are by no means new; rather, it is the way he knits them together into a grand portrait of the social relevance of climate change that makes the book compelling. Although his subject is alarming, Welzer himself never becomes alarmist, largely on account of the wealth of evidence he provides. Harald Welzer’s Climate Wars is an intelligent, enthralling book that will open the eyes and sharpen the minds of more than one reader. An ambitious undertaking!
Vorname Name

By Eva Kaufmann, 01.09.2008

Translated by Franklin Bolsillo Mares