How climate change could lead to more wars in the 21st century


“My belief is that we will see a renaissance of violent conflict in the 21st century, and that many of these conflicts will spring from climate change.”

That’s what Harald Welzer, author of Climate Wars: Why People Will Be Killed in the 21st Century, told me in a recent interview. A professor at the University of Flensburg in Germany, Welzer studies the cultural and political implications of climate change. His book, first published in 2012, was rereleased in paperback in October.

After a new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation warning that climate change is likely to cause the largest refugee crisis in human history, I reached out to Welzer to discuss his book, which is a foreboding look at humanity’s future in a world shaped, increasingly, by climate change.

Twentieth-century wars were fought over land, religion, and economics. But Welzer argues that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over something quite different: climate change, and the shortages of water and food that will come from it.

“Ideology will always be a surface-level justification for conflict,” he told me. “But if you look deeply at the source of future conflicts, I think you’ll see a basic resource conflict at the bottom of it all.”

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

The links between climate and conflict

Sean Illing

The subtitle of your book is “Why People Will Be Killed in the 21st Century.” That will sound alarmist to some. What’s your thesis?

Harald Welzer

The thesis is very simple: that you always have a higher potential for violent conflict when the survival conditions of groups of people are threatened. This is a very basic principle. My original question was: if all these scientists and climate researchers are right, or even close to right, what does it mean for greater potential for violent conflict? And I think the answers are not encouraging.

You can see this when you look at events that are already happening, like land conflicts due to desertification, or various resource conflicts around the world. But it’s important to remember that the causal links between climate and conflict are rarely direct.

Sean Illing

What specific factors related to climate change will become the greatest source of violence in the world?

Harald Welzer

My most prominent example is the Darfur conflict because you can see clearly what happens when you have competing groups like the herders and the farmers battling for finite resources, and you can see what happens when land disappears and there are no mediating institutions to regulate the conflict.

There are studies that suggest the Arab Spring had something to do with climate because of the rise of food prices and so on. But again, we have to be very careful here because there’s a gap in the research. We haven’t fully integrated conflict research and climate research, and that’s part of the reason I wrote this book.

Sean Illing

There are reports like this one from the Brookings Institution that suggest we don’t really have any solid evidence that global warming directly increases conflict. This study in particular looked at sub-Saharan Africa and found that although the temperature has steadily risen in the past few decades, the number of conflicts has decreased. What do you make of this data?

Harald Welzer

A lot of these careful researchers will say, “Hmm, there might be a correlation between climate change and conflict, but it’s not direct.” But the causal chain is never — or almost never — that direct when you’re talking about human affairs. There are lots of variables and lots of factors interacting in all sorts of ways, and it’s extraordinarily complicated.

But it’s not that difficult to see that, say, mass migration due to climate change will lead to social disruption and potentially violent conflict. I think this will become more apparent over the next decade or so. You can see it already in Europe. I suspect we’re going to see more nativism, more xenophobia, and more talk of building walls on our borders.

These things exist with or without climate change, but the effects of climate change — migration in particular — will exacerbate them and help fuel reactionary movements around the world. This is what I worry most about. As conditions become more and more unstable, you’re going to see all of these regressive tendencies in our politics bubble up to the surface, and that’s likely to lead to more violence.

“I see climate as a fundamental driver of conflict in this century”

We’re never far from violence

Sean Illing

The world you’re describing is a world in which conflict has far less to do with ideology or utopian visions of the future and instead is about a brutish fight over basic resources.

Harald Welzer

Yes, and I think this is a crucial point. Ideology will always be a surface-level justification for conflict — people come up with narratives to justify whatever they’re doing in the political world. But if you look deeply at the source of future conflicts, I think you’ll see a basic resource conflict at the bottom of it all.

My belief is that we will see a renaissance of violent conflict in the 21st century, and that many of these conflicts will spring from climate change. It’s hard to predict the rate of decline or where or when conflicts will emerge, but we can say with some confidence that climate change will render huge parts of the world less hospitable to human beings, and that as a consequence, humans will have to change how and where they live.

These sorts of changes will produce tensions among groups of people struggling to adapt to a new environment. Again, that’s why I see climate as a fundamental driver of conflict in this century.

Sean Illing

You suggest in the book that we give too much credit to humanity and put too much faith in reason and law. How thin is the veneer of civilization in your mind, and how easily do you think it will crack?

Harald Welzer

I would put it a little more sociologically and say that the use of violence is a constant in human life — it’s always a possibility. So violence was never gone and is always here, always present. And violence can take many forms. But if we have rising resource conflicts and other tensions related to those conflicts, then we should expect a manifest spike in violence. That’s really all I’m saying.

And it’s not just that the veneer of civilization is thin, as you put it, but it’s also about the organizational power of societies. Some societies will have more organizational power, more ability to get what they need and take what they want. I think the imbalances there will also produce conflicts.

Sean Illing

Are we prepared? Do we have the institutions, the structures, the systems of cooperation we need to deal with this problem?

Harald Welzer

I don’t think so. I don’t think we have an existing structure of peacekeeping that can hold up under these conditions — or at least I’m not encouraged by what we’ve seen so far. Maybe there has been some progress in the second half of the 20th century with international law and with the United Nations and institutions like that, but I continue to believe that we don’t have a working, successful mechanism to prevent these types of violent conflicts.

“I suspect we’re going to see more nativism, more xenophobia, and more talk of building walls on our borders”

Can we course-correct?

Sean Illing

There’s a question you pose early in the book to which I don’t think there’s a satisfactory answer. It’s something like: Can Western democratic society, which is built on a system of limitless growth and productivity, change its destructive relationship with nature?

Harald Welzer

This is the biggest question of the 21st century. Here’s the paradox: Modern liberal democratic societies are successful at improving the lives and freedoms of people who live in them. The problem is that these systems are based on the exploitation of nature and our environment, and we’re sort of trapped in this paradigm.

I think we need something like a new theory of modernity. We need a societal model that is able to cope with all of these ecological problems that are on the table. And right now we just don’t have one.

Sean Illing

The last chapter of your book is titled “What Can and Cannot Be Done.” I have to say, there seems to be a lot more that can’t be done than can be done.

Harald Welzer

Perhaps. But here’s the thing: People can act. We have a freedom to act, which means we can change things. So we have to take advantage of this privileged situation and become more political than we have been during the last decade. We have to do something with our potential.

The stakes are too high to do nothing.

More Info: