John Gittings

The Nuclear/Climate Challenge

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Future Control

How refreshing to hear voices raised in Britain today asking to "take control" in a cause of which we can all approve! The students who recently staged a strike to combat climate change put it very simply: In the words of one demonstrator interviewed by Channel 4 News: "We are presiding over an ecological catastrophe, and we should be able to take control over our future". Their campaign reflects the urgency of the situation: if we thought we had a decade or two in which to begin reversing the drift to disaster it turns out that we are already on the cliff-edge of irreversible change. It is sobering to list the news stories which have battered our consciousness during just two weeks of February:  NASA records that the current five-year stretch is the warmest since records began.... a cavity two-thirds the size of Manhattan is discovered under an Antarctic glacier... over 40 percent of the world's insect species are threatened with extinction...  the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report concludes that "of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe"...   the list goes on. When even the CEOs of Davos are compelled to wake up, it really is time. The bad news has reached a critical mass so that (and this is at least good news) practically everyone except Donald Trump and Nigel Lawson finally gets it.

Of course the truth has been around much, much longer. The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, which led to setting up the UN Environment Programme, clearly recognised the link between human-made emissions and environmental damage: the Sixth Principle of its final Declaration is worth quoting in full: "The discharge of toxic substances or of other substances and the release of heat, in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless, must be halted in order to ensure that serious or irreversible damage is not inflicted upon ecosystems.". The first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 went into more detail: "emissions resulting from human activities" -- carbon dioxide, methane, CFCs and nitrous oxide -- would cause "an additional warming of the Earth's surface".  Global warming entered into the vocabulary with that report.

There is a painful analogy between the environmental and nuclear threats which the world faces. In the nuclear case the essential facts have been known for even longer: the risks of mutual deterrence (demonstrated in the Cuban crisis), and the various "near-miss" nuclear accidents occurring in every decade, did not remain secret for long. The difference today is that the nuclear threat does not have anything like the prominence of the environmental threat. It has taken the visible evidence of extreme weather conditions to convince many people of climate change. Do we have to wait for a (hopefully small) nuclear accident or war to be similarly convinced?

Perhaps not: Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and (now joined by Russia) effectively from the 1987 INF treaty has begun to raise awareness of the dangers of proliferation. And the dual nature of the threat we face -- nuclear plus environment -- is also starting to be recognised by those in a position to know. The annual "Doomsday Clock" statement of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists first linked climate change to the nuclear danger in 2007, and this has been re-iterated with increasing force.  In 2017 it argued that world leaders not only failed to deal adequately with nuclear and climate threats but increased them "through a variety of provocative statements and actions...”.  The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has delivered a series of (under-reported) warnings on both subjects, also warning that global cooperation needed to tackle them -- not least in the Security Council -- is fragile: multi-lateralism is "under fire when we need it most". This suggests a new direction for the peace movement: to seek ways of linking the environment and peace campaigns, and to rekindle support for the often under-supported United Nations. We are all in a very dangerous place and joint action should make a difference.

Oxford CND Newsletter, March-April 2019