Stirling Castle and the Nuclear-Climate Nexus at COP26

Photograph Source: Stirling Castle – CC BY 2.0

The world is not getting any safer. According to Hans M. Kristensen and Max Korda, the UK over here has a stockpile of approximately 225 nuclear warheads, of which up to 120 are operationally available for deployment on four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based at the Royal Navy bases of Coulport and Faslane in Scotland. The world is changing so fast that the Financial Times was even recently told of possible plans to move these bases to ones in the US or France if Scotland votes yes in a second referendum.

But if this isn’t enough, British prime minister Boris Johnson in March this year decided that the already large amount of nuclear weapons in the UK stockpile should be upped to 260, thereby ending in a heartbeat a slow but peaceable trend of incremental reduction. Hardly a word was said by the public about this, an increase incidentally which Britain pays the Americans to build and then lease back from.

I went to Stirling Castle therefore with a ponderous turn of mind. The freshly formed International Forum for Understanding was hosting an event at the castle concentrating as part of COP26 on the nuclear-climate nexus, using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its roadmap and with a plan to explore at the gathering the existential threat of nuclear warfare and its swiftly following environmental impact. Coincidentally, Stirling Castle happens to be close to where Stirling University CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) supporters occasionally stop the nuclear weapon convoy on its way to or from the abovementioned bases. It is also one of the finest castles in Scotland, a settlement first recorded in the 7th and 8th centuries. It was in Scotland I first came across people from CND at the proposed site for Torness Nuclear Power Station. The anti-nuclear protest fell on deaf ears. Construction began shortly afterwards.

Aside from a former nuclear submariner I knew in a conflict zone, my only other port of call on matters nuclear was in Vienna a few years ago where UNODA (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs) is based, alongside important nuclear non-proliferation lobbies. I was there to see Les Simm, now executive director of the International Forum of Understanding, to discuss a possible film. There were so many panels and discussions in the vast UN building, I could have chosen just about any topic. It also felt hard for someone unversed like myself to gauge just how useful organised discussions were in terms of enacting change. Through no fault of its participants, performance seemed to outweigh consequence.

To get to Stirling, I was travelling with journalist Ben West, himself fresh from that genuine champion of nuclear non-proliferation that is the Central Asian country and former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has done more arguably to contribute to a safer planet than any other country in the world. (Norway is up there too.) Kazakhstan once upon a time was the most nuked place on earth. Imagine that. As a result, there is little the Kazakh people do not know about both the effects of tested nuclear weapons and abandoned nuclear weapons — the former Soviet Union having left more than 100 ballistic missiles and 1200 nuclear heads.

Ben West and I both agreed the subject was too vast to encapsulate swiftly. As our plane and greenhouse gases began their malevolent descent, I remembered the last time landing at Edinburgh saw me queuing behind Monica Lewinsky. This time I reclaimed my baggage just as Airforce One and POTUS were landing nearby. (Presumably on board was President Biden’s famous nuclear football, or Presidential Emergency Satchel — the one used to authorise nuclear attacks on the hoof.) While POTUS drove off mysteriously unsighted to Glasgow, we caught a high-tech bus past the chemical industrial town of Grangemouth to the former Scottish capital of Stirling. An hour or so later, the walk to Stirling Castle was steep and the topics to be discussed even steeper. The occasion was designed to mark an important milestone in promoting what was described as ‘intergenerational, apolitical, and constructive dialogue aimed at contextualising climate change while mitigating the existential threat of nuclear warfare and its resulting environmental impact’. As I finished re-reading this to myself, I could see the gallant Ochil Hills to one side and Lowlands to the other; milling about nearby were attentive and kindly castle staff dressed like figures from ‘Fargo’.

As people entered the Chapel Royal looking up at the revitalised 1628 frieze, they were then met with half a dozen pink plinth-like lightboxes on stage with the faces and profiles of six Nobel Laureates beaming out — German physicist and mathematician Max Born, key to the development of quantum mechanics; American Percy Williams Bridgman, known for his work on the physics of high pressures; polymathic Bertrand Russell, master of philosophy, mathematics, logic and protest; German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, unquestionably the greatest physicist of all time; British physicist CF Powell, who headed the team that developed the photographic method of studying nuclear processes; and, finally, radical chemist, chemical engineer, biochemist, peace activist, author, and educator Linus Pauling.

To see these six great men stood like altar pieces in what was the first protestant kirk in Scotland felt quite extraordinary, but it was definitely time for a great woman.

Enter Christine Parthemore stage left, director of the Climate-Nuclear-Security Program at the Council on Strategic Risks, and an authority on the security connotations of climate change and weapons of mass destruction, including work for the US Department of Defense, security think tanks and academia. Christine Parthemore was speaking on ‘Nuclear War and Climate Change: The Urgency for Action’, sending an important chill through the tall space with mention of nuclear winter. Only last year she and partner Andy Weber called for several specific actions to move the United States onto what they called a smarter path regarding nuclear weapons: ‘Starting but not ending with extending the New START treaty.’ An important figure himself, Andy Weber was also in attendance, their two year old much missed daughter back home.

I always find it inspiring the company of hardworking people dedicating their lives to pretty much every impossible task they can find. Never say never, seems to be their mantra. Sometimes the issue of nuclear weapons can feel too much of a macho thing, I was thinking, as if its use or threatened use is simply an over-propelled manifestation of a kind of male one-upmanship, just as history saw Joseph Stalin deciding he wanted a big bomb too, resulting in ‘First Lightning’ which the Americans famously called ‘Joe-1’.

As facts married regularly with warnings in this keynote speech, one of the highlights for me was mention of Kazakhstan. As already suggested, the Kazakh experience returns again and again to the subject. I am very interested in their story. There is an inspirational quality to the Kazakh presence around the table, and thankfully a young Kazakh speaker would be joining the following panel discussion. Of course, it is jolting at the same time to hear the phrase ‘the early Nuclear Age’, as if, already, the origins of such devastation are slipping back so far in time now, and we are still no further forward. Inevitably, India and Pakistan were also mentioned and I found myself contemplating, in a manner too dark for someone keen on solutions, that we were all in a hopeless tailspin still leading to possible total destruction.

It was gratifying therefore to notice so many young people in this former childhood home to Mary Queen of Scots and James VI and I. Young people, I feel, cut to the chase far better than older people. They do this particularly well on difficult topics. Maybe this is because they come at it guilt-free, so to say, with no generational liability. Unfortunately, though, as demonstrated by the passive British response to Boris Johnson’s recently declared increase in Britain’s nuclear weapons, this does not mean success, and there is still a long way to go in terms of how we address this issue, as well as so little time in which to do so. If anything, there has been an increase in the likes of war-porn on social media and there are so few occasions like this one to counteract this.

As the sky over this melodic Gateway to the Highlands melted into darkness, I felt the International Forum for Understanding knew all this. Indeed this was why it was so consciously searching for a new way through. Hence, if you like, the inventive setting and planned later performance.

Les Simm, the driving force behind it all, would baulk at the idea of the occasion being about him, but his story is compelling. Simm is a biker and former psychiatric nurse who became a Major in the British Army (Intelligence Corps) and now practices Buddhism. Without making any claim to my own importance in his story, we met while talking someone down from a panic attack before flying into Kabul on a makeshift charter flight from a terminal known for flights into Baghdad, Basra and Kandahar.

With my head filling fast with so much information, the following panel was a kind of successful riff on ‘Existential Threats and Interconnected Solutions’ chaired by Heather Wokusch. The young panel was suitably proactive and their discussion recorded for US TV. One Kenyan-born speaker was praising Ireland and Sweden at one point, while Heather Wokusch remembered a childhood game of hiding under her desk. As an aside, it was shocking to be reminded it was almost 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Scotland’s leading foundry expert Farquhar Laing of Black Isle Bronze was in attendance — he is also the owner of Kinkell Castle — and spoke eloquently of this group. We were all learning something.

The crowd reassembled in black ties and gowns for both a banquet and a novel piece of immersive theatre in the Great Hall, a place first completed by James IV in 1503. The performance was conceived by Australian Shane Caldwell, again as part of necessarily experimenting with new ways of communicating what is effectively a thorny topic. Figures from the Dalai Lama to Greta Thunberg and public intellectual Steven Pinker were portrayed.

At one point, Asle Toje, the charismatic deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, appeared, perfectly reminding guests of the key phrase of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and nine other distinguished Nobel Laureate scientists, by quoting that we should ‘Remember your humanity and forget the rest.’ The person to my left was a clearly gifted human rights lawyer working in The Hague. I was talking to her about what I clumsily called the ‘enshrineability’ of international law, how we should not push on past our responsibility to leave the world a better place, by foolishly believing compassion a sign of weakness.

Just before midnight, as everyone prepared to depart the floodlit castle grounds, a band of two dozen male pipers and four female highland dancers played the international guests out after Les Simm had shared an important public toast with the affable pipe band leader. For what it is worth, I came away both educated and impressed. People need to keep this topic alive. If it dies, we die. Keep it fresh. Keep moving. There is no other way around this fact.

Peter Bach lives in London.