Global Climate Change and Nuclear Abolition
The Marshall Islands are filing lawsuits against the nine nuclear powers to get them to step up to their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate total nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile Bill McKibben is gathering citizens for a rally in support of urgent action on climate change in New York on September 21st and 22nd, where the next climate summit will be held.
No two trans-national issues are more closely related than the abolition of nuclear weapons and global climate instability, for three reasons: first, nuclear war is the biggest potential accelerant of life-threatening climate change; second, the resources desperately needed to address climate issues continue to be poured into nuclear weapons and their delivery systems; and third, the solution to both challenges depends upon the same new way of thinking based in the reality that national and international self-interests have merged.
If India and Pakistan, or the U.S. and Russia, should back into a nuclear war, the glare of the explosions will vaporize our most cherished assumptions along with the victims. Survivors will ask, how was it that we ever thought that we could achieve security with these infernal machines? What were we all thinking, national leaders, the thousands of workers who build them, the lawmakers who finance them by siphoning tax dollars away from schools and mass transit, the coolly rational generals who seek budgetary increases for ever shinier toys? Their moral authority will be as devastated as the cratered moonscapes left by the destruction.
In 2007 the late Jonathan Schell spoke presciently about the relationship between nuclear weapons and climate change: “When I wrote The Fate of the Earth in 1982, I said that, first and foremost, nuclear weapons were an ecological danger. It wasn’t that our species could be directly wiped out by nuclear war down to the last person. That would only happen through the destruction to the underpinnings of life, through nuclear winter, radiation, ozone loss. There has been an oddity of timing, because when the nuclear weapon was invented, people didn’t even use the word “environment” or “ecosphere.” The environmental movement was born later. So in a certain sense the most urgent ecological threat of them all was born before the context in which you could understand it. The present larger ecological crisis is that context. In other words, global warming and nuclear war are two different ways that humanity threatens to undo the natural underpinnings of human, and of all other, life . . . we may be in a better position today, because of global warming, to grasp the real import of nuclear danger.”
The second way that global climate change and nuclear weapons are intertwined is through how we allocate our money and creativity. While President Obama has paid lip service to abolition, the U.S. government has continued to modernize existing weapons at grotesque expense, and other nuclear nations are following suit. The Ploughshares Fund estimates that in the maintenance and development of nuclear weapons, America will spend approximately 640 billion dollars over the next decade. Not only all this money, but scientific expertise as well, will be focused upon obsolete defense strategies whose endgame is inevitably suicidal—when doing too little about climate change is equally suicidal, just gradual rather than sudden. Many heads of multinational corporations and their minions in national legislatures deny the climate crisis because they fear their bottom line will be threatened by sensible solutions like a carbon tax. Security, economic growth and full employment will best be achieved, in their view, if we base our economy upon building more ships, planes and weapons rather than solar panels and super insulated buildings.
Citizens everywhere are waking up to the opportunity costs of this paradigm, because even greater threats to each separate nation’s security loom if we do not use the international economic system to transition out of fossil fuels into clean, renewable sources of energy. This massive fortune, 640 billion dollars, would be more than enough to help not only the U.S. but also the planet move into a green economy based upon building windmills not missiles, solar panels not submarines. What will awaken the political will to enact this global shift? The answer is in the third way that nuclear weapons and climate change are connected.
Everything changes when we change our minds. We have been stuck in an old mode of self-interest based on the nation-state and military threat. No victory is possible from a nuclear war, only nuclear winter; similarly, no victory is possible if the forces of international competition devour our planetary resources to the point of no return. A vision beckons of security based in mutually verifiable treaties leading to zero nuclear weapons, and an economy unleashed by building the infrastructure that will stabilize our climate with green energy.
The language of international politics and diplomacy caters to obsolete competitive notions of self-interest meant to soothe domestic national fears. Sadly, much that governments do in the present paradigm— games of chicken, enemy-stereotyping, endless jockeying for advantage—increases both the likelihood of nuclear war somewhere down the time-stream and does nothing to mitigate growing climate instability.
The two-in-one of climate change and nuclear abolition is not something to be addressed after supposedly more immediate brush-fires are extinguished; by viewing it instead as a single challenge, an opportunity for cooperative prevention based in planetary self-interest, success will become a model for resolving more local conflicts without violence.
The Marshall Islands, which endured open-air atomic testing, are courageous to speak for the powerless in bringing suit against the mighty nuclear powers. In 2013 they appealed to the U.N. for more help with climate change, already a life-and-death issue for these low-lying atolls, but soon enough for all of us.
Winslow Myers, the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” writes on global issues and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.