Carbon footprints with deadly consequences

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CLIMATE CHANGE:Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed for in the 21st Century By Harald Welzer, translated by Patrick Camiller. Polity Press, 214pp. £20

SINCE THE THREAT posed by global warming first gained widespread public attention, about three decades ago, a large and diverse literature has grown up on the subject. The first statement by climate scientists alerting the public and policymakers to the dangers of uncontrolled greenhouse-gas emissions was the 1979 report Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, issued by the US National Academy of Sciences. That slim volume, known as the Charney report, after its main author, warned that if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to double relative to its preindustrial value, as foreseen to occur well before the end of the 21st century – and with no further increase in carbon dioxide after that – the globe would probably warm by about three degrees.

The Charney report has been followed by the increasingly voluminous reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued at intervals of about six years since 1990, with the most recent appearing in 2007. These, and the mainstream scientific literature in the interim, continue to affirm the main conclusions of the Charney report while extensively documenting ongoing developments.

By now the atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration has risen to 40 per cent above its preindustrial level and continues to rise at an accelerating rate. The global-temperature curve, though not following the carbon-dioxide curve monotonically year by year because of natural climate variability, shows a global warming of 0.8 degrees over the past century. The latest models continue to project several degrees of further warming before the end of this century.

Among the early general books arising from the climate scientists’ warnings, Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, from 1993, became a bestseller. James Lovelock’s apocalyptic volumes, culminating in his most recent, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009), have presented graphic visions of possible global catastrophe unless urgent action is taken to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Harald Welzer’s new book, translated from German, considers the issue of climate change from the perspective of a social scientist. Welzer is profoundly concerned with the potential for violence and for the breakdown of world order inherent in the pressures that climate change will generate. He sees Sudan as the first case of a war-torn country where climate change is unquestionably one cause of violence and civil war. Over the past 40 years, the desert in northern Sudan has moved 100km towards the once-fertile south. The causes are, on the one hand, steadily decreasing rainfall linked with global climate change and, on the other, the overgrazing of grassland, deforestation and ensuing soil erosion that makes the land infertile.

Welzer provides a framework for his vision of the future by chronicling mankind’s propensity for violence, emphasising the wars and genocides of the past century. His focus includes not only the dictatorships but also the former colonial powers, whose “democratic amnesia” allows them to distance themselves from the consequences of their earlier activities in Africa and elsewhere. Extrapolating from the historical record, he argues that climate change will lead to violence on a large scale, first within the poorer countries that are most directly affected and then, as waves of environmental refugees look for a better life elsewhere, in the affluent countries that try to keep them at bay.

Considering the question of what can be done to avoid the worst, Welzer presents two scenarios. The first, “for the optimists”, envisages a cultural change that would permit an escape from the logic of unstoppable growth and limitless consumption, a society in which people demand a radical worldwide reduction in resource use as a positive good. The second, “for the pessimists” (a category in which Welzer includes himself), foresees a world in which efforts to control climate change fail and the western world’s concern for its own security and self-preservation lead it to abandon the values of freedom and democracy by which it has come to define itself.

Developments since Welzer wrote this book will not change the views of those who are pessimistic about the prospects for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Canada’s recent withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol and President Obama’s acknowledgment in his 2012 state of the union address that the US Congress is too divided to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change do not bode well. The EU seems likely to push ahead with its own plans, motivated to reduce fossil-fuel consumption by the additional imperative of energy security, an issue that is much more pressing on this than on the other side of the Atlantic.

Only time will tell if a global low-carbon economy will emerge in time to check the accelerating increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and its likely consequences for Earth’s climate. Those who are concerned with these and related issues will find this book by Harald Welzer a thought-provoking if uncomfortable read.


Ray Bates is adjunct professor of meteorology at University College Dublin. He was formerly professor of meteorology at the University of Copenhagen and a senior scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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