What the Analysts Leave Out

The conservative columnist George Will wrote a very welcome column calling attention to a book, Nuclear War: A Scenario by historian Annie Jacobsen, a riveting must-read that details just how easily deterrence could unravel, how fast and irreversibly escalation would occur, and how compete the destruction would be.

But Will undercut the value of his review by contrasting nuclear war with the climate crisis, of which he is a denier. Climate deniers these days are as obsolete as Holocaust deniers and surely neither should be given space in major American newspapers.

The climate crisis is inescapable and the nuclear crisis is becoming more so. But it is essential and useful to see how the two are intertwined:

Both crises continue because of denial. The extreme kind is exemplified by Mr. Will and, from all indications, candidate Trump—neither of these thinks global climate change is an emergency at all.

A lesser degree of denial encompasses almost all the rest of us. We see the obvious indicators of climate and nuclear dysfunctionality but feel helpless. At the other extreme are the Bill Mckibbens and Greta Thunbergs and their millions of followers who have given their utmost to waking the rest of us up to the urgency, including the doctors in groups like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, or the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017) who are doing the same for nukes.

The denial of the passive mass middle around both issues includes the political establishments of many nations. Some countries are doing more than others to mitigate global warming, even as the powerful fossil fuel industry fights tooth and nail against its own looming obsolescence. On the nuclear issue things are far worse, with the invasion of Ukraine and China’s ongoing threat to repossess Taiwan rendering new arms control initiatives seemingly impossible—just when the aggressive pursuit of such treaties is most needed.

This is too obvious to mention, but both crises represent existential threats. Global warming may be more gradual, but it is just as all-encompassing as nuclear war. In the Jacobsen book it takes only 72 minutes to pretty much change the planet we know and love into a world where the still living would envy the dead. But because global warming is not just somewhere over the horizon but here now, there are going to be far too many people who will die in the summer of 2024 from the effects of heat, while Mr. Will continues in comfortably air-conditioned denial.

Establishment thinking assumes that we have enough money and creativity to cope with both crises. For 35 years one member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War who is on the activist end of the spectrum, Dr. Robert Dodge, has been writing hair-on-fire editorials that apply a formula for determining how much of our tax revenue is poured down the nuclear weapons rathole. It’s mind-boggling. In tax year 2023, the town of Ojai where Dodge lives spent $2,742,698 funding U.S. nuclear weapons programs, just the one town. Ventura County where Ojai is located in California spent $253,174,999. The total U.S. Nuclear Weapons Programs expenditure was $94,485,000,000. That’s 94 billion.

There are differences between the leaders of the nine nuclear powers. Mr. Biden has little in common with Kim Jong Un, though the other candidate for U.S. president, spending his down time in court at the moment even as he polls neck-and-neck, may have all too much in common.

But the leaders of the nuclear powers are all failing to put the interests of the planet above the interests of their sovereign nations: they know that a nuclear war cannot be won, that launch-on-warning is insane, that none of them is prepared for those fateful few minutes of decision described so powerfully by Jacobsen that would unfold out of a deterrence breakdown. But all refuse to act creatively upon the implications.

There is a way out, and, once again, it involves the interconnection between nuclear war and the climate crisis. Start by pulling our ostrich heads out of the sand and admit the crazy, suicidally dysfunctionality of nuclear deterrence. The nine nuclear powers need to sign the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons even if they may be in violation of its provisions for some years yet. Make gestures which are quickly reversible if no other party responds, like bringing home a few submarines. Convene the generals and talk about the no-exit nature of the situation—and talk, loudly, about it even if some generals refuse the invitation.

And talk equally loudly about the need for a new level of cooperation on climate. Think outside the box: the military forces of all nations happen to also be the biggest polluters. How could they work together instead to help with the effects of climate already here, the refugees, the water crises, the conflicts over resources? It’s a proven fact that tensions decrease when adversaries cooperate on a common goal. We can all have conversations locally about the connections between the two challenges, conversations that would lead to probing questions of our representatives at every level.

Everything has changed in our world; we have begun to become aware that everything I do affects you and vice versa. The nuclear deterrence system and George Will-Donald Trump-style climate denial leaves out too much of our reality.

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.