The Fire Next Time: Climate Change, the Bomb, or the Flame of Hope?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

If you live in California, you’re likely to be consumed on occasion by thoughts of fire. That’s not surprising, given that, in last year alone, actual fires consumed over four and a quarter million acres of the state, taking with them 10,488 structures, 33 human lives, and who knows how many animals. By the end of this January, a month never before even considered part of the “fire” season, 10 wildfires had already burnedthrough 2,337 more acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

With each passing year, the state’s fire season arrives earlier and does greater damage. In 2013, a mere eight years ago, fires consumed about 602,000 acres and started significantly later. That January, CalFire reported only a single fire, just two in February, and none in March. Fire season didn’t really begin until April and had tapered off before year’s end. This past December, however, 10 fires still burned at least 10,000 acres. In fact, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about a fire “season” anymore. Whatever the month, wildfires are likely to be burning somewhere in the state.

Clearly, California’s fires (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) are getting worse. Just as clearly, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s exhortations to do a better job of  “raking” our forests, climate change is the main cause of this growing disaster.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden seems to take the climate emergency seriously. In just his first two weeks in office, he’s cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline project, forbidden new drilling for oil or gas on public lands, and announced a plan to convert the entire federal fleet of cars and trucks to electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, he’s bringing the U.S. back into the Paris climate accords, signaling an understanding that a planetary crisis demands planetwide measures and that the largest carbon-emitting economies should be leading the way. “This isn’t [the] time for small measures,” Biden has said. “We need to be bold.”

Let’s just hope that such boldness has arrived in time and that the Biden administration proves unwilling to sacrifice the planet on an altar of elusive congressional unity and illusionary bipartisanship.

Another Kind of Fire

If climate change threatens human life as we know it, so does another potential form of “fire” — the awesome power created when a nuclear reaction converts matter to energy. This is the magic of Einstein’s observation that e=mc2, or that the energy contained in a bit of matter is equal to its mass (roughly speaking, its weight) multiplied by the speed of light expressed in meters per second. Roughly speaking, as we’ve all known since August 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, that’s an awful lot of energy. When a nuclear reaction is successfully controlled, the energy can be regulated and used to produce electricity without emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

Unfortunately, while nuclear power plants don’t add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, they do create radioactive waste, some of which remains deadly for thousands of years. Industry advocates who argue for nuclear power as a “green” alternative generally ignore the problem which has yet to be solved ­­ of disposing of that waste.

In what hopefully is just a holdover from the Trump administration, the Energy Department website still “addresses” this issue by suggesting that all the nuclear waste produced to date “could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!” The site neglects to add that, if you shoved that 3,456,000 square feet of nuclear waste together the wrong way, the resultant explosive chain reaction would probably wipe out most life on Earth.

Remember, too, that “controlled” nuclear reactions don’t always remain under human control. Ask anyone who lived near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, or the FukushimaDaiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

There is, however, another far more devastating form of “controlled” nuclear reaction, the kind created when a nuclear bomb explodes. Only one country has ever deployed atomic weapons in war, of course: the United States, in its attack on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki. Those bombs were of the older uranium-based variety and were puny by the standards of today’s nuclear weapons. Still, the horror of those attacks was sufficient to convince many that such weapons should never be used again.

Treaties and Entreaties

In the decades since 1945, various configurations of nations have agreed to treaties prohibiting the use of, or limiting the proliferation of, nuclear weapons — even as the weaponry spread and nuclear arsenals grew. In the Cold War decades, the most significant of these were the bilateral pacts between the two superpowers of the era, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed in 1991, Washington signed treaties instead with the Russian Federation government, the most recent being the New START treaty, which came into effect in 2011 and was just extended by Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

In addition to such bilateral agreements, the majority of nations on the planet agreed on various multilateral pacts, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which has been signed by 191 countries and has provided a fairly effective mechanism for limiting the spread of such arms. Today, there are still “only” nine nuclear-armed states. Of these, six have signed the NPT, but just five of them — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States — admit to possessing such weaponry. Israel, which also signed the pact, has never publicly acknowledged its growing nuclear arsenal. Three other nuclear-armed countries — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — have never signed the treaty at all. Worse yet, in 2005, the George W. Bush administration inked a side-deal with India that gave Washington’s blessing to the acceleration of that country’s nuclear weapons development program outside the monitoring constraints of the NPT.

The treaty assigns to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the authority to monitor compliance. It was this treaty, for example, that gave the IAEA the right to inspect Iraq’s nuclear program in the period before the U.S. invaded in 2003. Indeed, the IAEA repeatedly reported that Iraq was, in fact, in compliance with the treaty in the months that preceded the invasion, despite the claims of the Bush administration that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein had such weaponry. The United States must act, President Bush insisted then, before the “smoking gun” of proof the world demanded turned out to be a “mushroom cloud” over some American city. As became clear after the first few months of the disastrous U.S. military occupation, there simply were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (At least partly in recognition of the IAEA’s attempts to forestall that U.S. invasion, the agency and its director general, Mohamed El Baradei, would receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.)

Like Iraq, Iran also ratified the NPT in 1968, laying the foundation for ongoing IAEA inspections there. In recent years, having devastated Iraq’s social, economic, and political infrastructure, the United States shifted its concern about nuclear proliferation to Iran. In 2015, along with China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union, the Obama administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), informally known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Under the JCPOA, in return for the lifting of onerous economic sanctions that were affecting the whole population, Iran agreed to limit the development of its nuclear capacity to the level needed to produce electricity. Again, IAEA scientists would be responsible for monitoring the country’s compliance, which by all accounts was more than satisfactory — at least until 2018. That’s when President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the agreement and reimposed heavy sanctions. Since then, as its economy began to be crushed, Iran was, understandably enough, reluctant to uphold its end of the bargain.

In the years since 1945, the world has seen treaties signed to limit or ban the testing of nuclear weapons or to cap the size of nuclear arsenals, as well as bilateral treaties to decommission parts of existing ones, but never a treaty aimed at outlawing nuclear weapons altogether. Until now. On January 22, 2021, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons took effect. Signed so far by 86 countries, the treaty represents “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination,” according to the U.N. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, none of the nine nuclear powers are signatories.

“Fire and Fury”

I last wrote about nuclear danger in October 2017 when Donald Trump had been in the White House less than a year and, along with much of the world, I was worried that he might bungle his way into a war with North Korea. Back then, he and Kim Jong-un had yet to fall in love or to suffer their later public breakup. Kim was still “Little Rocket Man” to Trump, who had threatened to “rain fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea.

The world did, in the end, survive four years of a Trump presidency without a nuclear war, but that doesn’t mean he left us any safer. On the contrary, he took a whole series of rash steps leading us closer to nuclear disaster:

+ He pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA, thereby destabilizing the Iran nuclear agreement and reigniting Iran’s threats (and apparent efforts toward) someday developing nuclear weapons.

+ He withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later the Russian Federation), which, according to the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, “required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and employ extensive on-site inspections for verification.”

+ He withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, which gave signatories permission to fly over each other’s territories to identify military installations and activities. Allowing this kind of access was meant to contribute to greater trust among nuclear-armed nations.

+ He threatened to allow the New START Treaty to expire, should he be reelected.

+ He presided over a huge increase in spending on the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including on new submarine- and land-based launching capabilities. A number of these programs are still in their initial stages and could be stopped by the Biden administration.

In January 2021, after four years of Trump, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adjustedits “Doomsday Clock,” moving the minute hand forward, to a mere 100 seconds to midnight. Since 1947, that Clock’s annual resetting has reflected how close, in the view of the Bulletin’s esteemed scientists and Nobel laureates, humanity has come to ending it all. As the Bulletin’s editors note, “The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.”

Why so close to midnight? The magazine lists a number of reasons, including the increased danger of nuclear war, due in large part to steps taken by the United States in the Trump years, as well as to the development of “hypersonic” missiles, which are supposed to fly at five times the speed of sound and so evade existing detection systems. (Trump famously referred to these “super-duper” weapons as “hydrosonic,” a term that actually describes a kind of toothbrush.) There is disagreement among weapons experts about the extent to which such delivery vehicles will live up to the (hyper) hype about them, but the effort to build them is destabilizing in its own right.

The Bulletin points to a number of other factors that place humanity in ever greater danger. One is, of course, the existential threat of climate change. Another is the widespread dissemination of “false and misleading information.” The spread of lies about Covid-19, its editors say, exemplifies the life-threatening nature of a growing “wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense.” This is, they note, “often driven by political figures and partisan media.” Such attacks on knowledge itself have “undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens.”

Passing the (Nuclear) Ball

When Donald Trump announced that he wouldn’t attend the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, few people were surprised. After all, he was still insisting that he’d actually won the election, even after that big lie fueled an insurrectionary invasion of the Capitol. But there was another reason for concern: if Trump was going to be at Mar-a-Lago, how would he hand over the “nuclear football” to the new president? That “football” is, in fact, a briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes, which presidents always have with them. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, it’s been passed from the outgoing president to the new one on Inauguration Day.

Consternation! The problem was resolved through the use of two briefcases, which were simultaneously deactivated and activated at 11:59:59 a.m. on January 20th, just as Biden was about to be sworn in.

The football conundrum pointed to a far more serious problem, however — that the fate of humanity regularly hangs on the actions of a single individual (whether as unbalanced as Donald Trump or as apparently sensible as Joe Biden) who has the power to begin a war that could end our species.

There’s good reason to think that Joe Biden will be more reasonable about the dangers of nuclear warfare than the narcissistic idiot he succeeds. In addition to agreeing to extend the New START treaty, he’s also indicated a willingness to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and criticized Trump’s nuclear buildup. Nevertheless, the power to end the world shouldn’t lie with one individual. Congress could address this problem, by (as I suggested in 2017) enacting “a law that would require a unanimous decision by a specified group of people (for example, officials like the secretaries of state and defense together with the congressional leadership) for a nuclear first strike.”

The Fire Next Time?

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but the fire next time

These words come from the African-American spiritual “I Got a Home in that Rock.” The verse refers to God’s promise to Noah in Genesis, after the great flood, never again to destroy all life on earth, a promise signified by the rainbow.

Those who composed the hymn may have been a bit less trusting of God — or of human destiny — than the authors of Genesis, since the Bible account says nothing about fire or a next time. Sadly, recent human history suggests that there could indeed be a next time. If we do succeed in destroying ourselves, it seems increasingly likely that it will be by fire, whether the accelerating heating of the globe over decades, or a nuclear conflagration any time we choose. The good news, the flame of hope, is that we still have time — at least 100 seconds — to prevent it.

This essay was distributed by TomDispatch.