The Chimney and the Cloud
By SEAN HOWARD, adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton.
This article was originally published in the Cape Breton Spectator.
A more telling or ironic snapshot of endangered Mother Earth in the 21st century could scarcely be imagined: a naval war game by a nuclear-armed alliance delayed by a storm that drew its force from the human-caused warming of the oceans.
The hurricane, of course, was Dorian, and the war game Operation Cutlass Fury, scheduled to begin on September 9 with a saber-rattling ‘spectacular’ in Halifax harbor. With guns blazing from HMCS Ville de Québec, a fly-past led by an attack helicopter (a Cyclone!) and two fighter jets was due to roaringly salute a mini-Armada of 22 battleships and 2,500 personnel from eight NATO states (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, UK, USA), on its way to practice a range of daring maneuvers against the dastardly Russian foe. ‘Bold, strong, and ready,’ in the words of the Cutlass Fury motto. Although not, it seems, ready for climate change…
One group of fighters, Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace (NSVOW) came prepared, ‘armed’ with a letter to the commanders of NATO ships in Halifax harbor — a “direct appeal to the human behind the military veneer” – and a handout demanding that Canada adopt “an independent foreign policy” which “lessens rather than increases international tensions,” offers “protection from pressing threats, such as climate disruption and nuclear weapons,” ensures “our actions do not further increase the climate threat,” refuses “to engage in aggressive military actions or training for such actions mandated by military alliances such as NATO,” and redirects “military spending to urgent social, economic and environmental issues, particularly recognizing that women’s and children’s needs are the most under-funded and should be given priority.”
On September 3, NSVOW’s Kathrin Winkler wrote in the Halifax Chronicle Herald that the “Canadian Armed Forces would serve humanity better in building for a future, rather than manoeuvring on a dying ocean” in a manner itself deeply disruptive and damaging to marine life and the environment.
Winkler was predictably attacked on the Letters page for emotionalism and naiveté: living in a “mythical land” where everyone acts like “love children,” while in the ‘real world’ “sources of trouble” require a strong, bristling response. These ‘sources,’ according to G. Bruce Hollett of Halifax (September 7) include “the Soviet Union,” which “hasn’t really settled down,” North Korea, China, and “terrorist factions” (hopefully deterred by so many warships). The same day, Bruce Carter of Truro warned that “nuking the planet would be far more devastating than a few planes and ships practicing in order to prevent war.”
But as NSVOW was acutely aware, because both NATO and Russia are nuclear-armed – because both claim the ‘right’ to ‘go nuclear’ first in any conflict – Cutlass Fury was theater of the atomic absurd: preparation for a conflict all-too-likely to lead to the deaths of tens of millions, and the radioactive, climate-changing poisoning of vast areas of land, sea, and air. All such exercises help ‘prevent’ is peace; all they deter is disarmament.
And NSVOW is right on a deeper level too: the real ‘enemy of the people’ and the planet is catastrophic climate change caused by irreversible global warming from industrialization (‘the Chimney’); and irreversible global cooling from nuclear war (‘the Cloud’).
‘Nuclearism’ – the cult and culture of mass-destruction, the power of death over life – is the deadliest strain of the virus of militarism, and militarism an extreme, overt expression of the violence of industrialism. But though militarism is both a major polluter and vandalizer of today’s environment, and more than capable of wrecking the ecosphere in future conflict, it remains on the margins of the contemporary climate crisis debate. Or as CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin wrote on September 30:
The environmental justice movement that is surging globally is intentionally intersectional, showing how global warming is connected to issues such as race, poverty, migration and public health. One area intimately connected to the climate crisis that gets little attention, however, is militarism.
What explains this dangerous blind-spot, and how can it be fixed?
When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, we are constantly counselled to ‘listen to the scientists.’ But for more than a third of a century, scientists have warned of a ‘nuclear winter,’ the long-term smothering of the sun by radioactive smoke and soot from city-vaporizing thermonuclear firestorms.
Painting by Christine Gwynn
Is such a scenario, in 2019, remotely likely? At a time of rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Russia, the war plans and postures of both nuclear superpowers still presuppose the possibility of a nuclear-winter-scale exchange, as well as ‘options’ for supposedly ‘limited,’ ‘controllable,’ ‘winnable’ conflicts.
A new, September 2019 simulation from Princeton University’s Science and Global Security program (already viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube, predicts over 90 million casualties (30+ million deaths) within hours of the first ‘step on the ladder.’ Hundreds of millions more would die from burns and radiation sickness. But one casualty the Princeton study doesn’t mention is surely the most important of all: the climate.
Since scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan first sounded the nuclear winter alarm, the sophistication of scientific modelling of a climate-wrecking nuclear calamity has increased dramatically. The two most recent major studies, deploying different methodologies, manage to surpass in horror the early predictions of Sagan and his fellow ‘scare-mongerers,’ as they were initially dismissed by nuclear-climate-change deniers.
In hard, cold fact, it is now thought that the smoke and soot from a major exchange would stay in the atmosphere to a greater extent, and for far longer, than previously assumed, generating an even worse “crash in global surface temperatures,” a more radical “collapse in the summer monsoon,” and more “drastic changes to the Northern Hemisphere winter time circulation,” in plainer terms, the contraction of the annual growing season in much of United States and Europe (or what was left of them) to less than seven weeks, and much less than that in most of Russia and China.
The quotes are from the most recent study, issued just a few months ago, that concluded that “a full-scale nuclear attack would be suicidal for country that carries [it] out,” and that the “use of nuclear weapons in this manner by the United States and Russia would have disastrous consequences globally.” “To completely remove the possibility” of such an “environmental catastrophe,” the authors argue – decision makers must have a full understanding of the grave climatic consequences of nuclear war and act accordingly. Ultimately, the reduction of nuclear arsenals and the eventual disarmament of all nuclear capable parties are needed.
But is it, perhaps, equally necessary that climate crisis activists acquire such a ‘full understanding,’ and adapt their strategy accordingly, keeping in view the ‘twin peaks’ of human insanity – industrialism and nuclearism – now threatening to seal ‘the fate of the earth’? As Carlos Umaña of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) wrote on September 23:
With the world in flames, the climate crisis is, even for its fiercest deniers, impossible to ignore. However, the vast majority of people do ignore how this situation worsens the risk of nuclear war and why nuclear disarmament is more important today than ever.
But is this “vast majority” really ‘ignoring’ the nuclear question, or, rather, frighteningly uninformed about it?
When it comes to rational discussion of sustainable economics, it’s high time to take ‘the Chimney’ off the table: to embrace a Green New Deal capable of driving down to zero the emissions that have set our ‘house’ on ‘fire.’ And in any sane debate of sustainable security, it’s high time to take ‘the Cloud’ off the table: to embrace a New Green Peace driving down to zero the risk of firestorms capable of reducing land, sea and sky to ruins.
Seen from this perspective, nuclear disarmament re-emerges as an issue of climate justice: an indispensable response to the single greatest emergency in human history. The link becomes even clearer when we realize even a comparatively ‘small’ nuclear war – a tiny fraction of a full exchange – would be sufficient to trigger global environmental trauma. Take, for example, a regional nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, a scenario rendered suddenly more likely by India’s recent disgraceful lock-down, and planned ethnic cleansing, of Kashmir. Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 27, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, justifiably appalled by the lack of Western outrage, warned in clear terms:
If a conventional war starts between the two countries…anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbour is faced with the choice – either you surrender or you fight… We will fight: and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end, it will have consequences far beyond the borders.
Here – according to a landmark 2012 study memorably entitled ‘Self-Assured Destruction’ – are just some of the consequences of an India-Pakistan exchange of 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons (20-kiloton fission bombs, used by the superpowers merely as triggers for their multi-megaton fusion explosives): “more than five million tons of smoke…lofted to high altitude, where it absorbs sunlight before the light can reach the lower atmosphere”; “ozone levels over the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres…reduced to values now found only in the Antarctic ozone hole”; steep falls in surface temperature producing “a 10 percent global drop in precipitation, with the largest losses in the low latitudes due to failure of the monsoons”; and “global average temperatures colder than any experienced on Earth in the past 1,000 years,” causing severe “disruption in world food trade.”
In such a ‘nuclear famine,’ as IPPNW warned in a separate study of such a ‘limited’ war in South Asia, “more than two billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – would be at risk.” And for this dreadful reason, the authors of the 2012 report argue, “proliferation cannot be treated as a regional problem”: “treaties must” henceforth “call for further reductions in weapons so that the collateral effects,” as “military planners” have hitherto thought of them, “do not threaten the continued survival of the bulk of humanity.”
“It is now time,” they conclude, “to add self-assured destruction to the list of reasons for ridding the world of nuclear weapons.” And since 2012, a new treaty has been negotiated (the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW, or more simply, the ‘Ban Treaty’) based precisely on such sound human reasoning – and compelling eco-logic. The Treaty is attracting strong support, particularly in the Global South, though its existence remains unknown to most Western citizens – including, alas, most climate change activists.
As we have seen, the similarity between the Chimney and the Cloud has long been acknowledged by many in the peace movement: what else, in the atomic age, is such a movement but an Extinction Rebellion?
Many anti-nuclear-weapons campaigners are also active in efforts to save the planet in the other way it most urgently needs to be saved: by radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And since 2017, the famous ‘Doomsday Clock’ of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been set at ‘two minutes to midnight’ in recognition of the double vision of disaster we now face, or what it calls soberly “the devolving state of nuclear and climate security.”
Yet, in most statements and speeches on climate change, by some of the movement’s most inspirational and influential figures, nuclear disarmament is rarely – if ever – mentioned. This is less surprising, perhaps, with a young leader like Greta Thunberg, who doubtless grew up hearing much about the effects of global warming, and almost nothing of the effects of nuclear war. But how explain the failure of older leaders like Bill McKibben, or that much-loved ‘father figure’ David Attenborough, to show both sides – Chimney and Cloud – of the climate crisis coin?
To be clear: I am not accusing McKibben, for example, of indifference to nuclearism, let alone ignorance of the clear and present danger it poses. I am, instead, wondering why the Cloud is missing from the ‘big picture’ he routinely and skillfully paints? As a snapshot of the way nuclear weapons can become (ironically) silo’d in the debate, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman – a long-time supporter of radical disarmament – recently conducted long interviews with both Thunberg and McKibben. They did not mention, and were not asked, anything about the Bomb – or militarism more generally — an omission that might have shocked two regular Democracy Now interviewees, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton and progressive commentator Noam Chomsky, who do draw Cloud and Chimney together.
Meanwhile, in the disarmament community, calls to respond to the nuclear emergency with the same urgency as the climate emergency can sometimes also fall short, giving the impression they are essentially different crises.
On September 30, for example, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, Daryl G. Kimball argued that “just as dramatic action is needed to avoid climate change catastrophe, immediate and decisive action is required to counter the growing threat of nuclear war before it is too late.” He’s absolutely right, and all-too-well aware of the atrocious environmental impacts of any use of the weapons he hates: but why not stress – for those well-versed in global warming but semi-literate (at best) on nuclear issues – that what he’s determined to ‘counter…before it is too late’ is exactly a ‘climate change catastrophe?’
In a statement issued to mark the UN’s International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (September 26), veteran Australian anti-nuclear activist John Hallam noted:
Global Warming will take about 100-150 years to make the planet uninhabitable for humans if we don’t do anything about it. Nuclear weapons can make the world uninhabitable in 45-90 minutes.
But this is to make a good point too sharply, for although philosopher Elaine Scarry – in Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom – is right to describe nuclear war as a “far more condensed catastrophe” than global warming, global warming is already causing terrible suffering, massive dislocation, and tragic loss of bio- and cultural diversity. And according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we only have a dozen years, not a dozen decades, to retreat from the brink of a death-spiral, the final Pyrrhic victory of ‘progress’ over planet.
he strategic search, instead, should be for ways these two wings might learn to ‘fly’ together. As a prime example, an authentically Green New Deal, however considerable the long-term savings it may generate, will cost trillions of dollars for decades, and so need all the funding help it can get; while an authentically New Green Peace, whatever ongoing costs it may accrue, will save trillions of dollars over decades, freeing fortunes best spent making the world greener – and less conflict-prone. (At the recent Climate Action event in Sydney, a single placard made this link, borrowing its inscription, “Warheads to Windmills,” from an impressive recent study of potential savings How many such messages were there at the massive events in Montreal and elsewhere?)
The demand for a Green New Deal in the US is being led by the ‘Sunrise Movement,’ a self-described ‘army’ of non-violent youth taking on the Same Old Deal establishments in both major parties. Does this ‘insurgency’ also demand nuclear disarmament, chant and sing for a New Green Peace? As Matt Korda, a brilliant young analyst with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, laments it does not:
I am a member of the Sunrise Movement, because I am scared of the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity. But I don’t work in the climate change space, because I believe there is an even scarier – and more immediate – existential threat that receives far less attention: nuclear weapons.
As Korda notes, the Cloud remains largely unseen and/or unmentioned by the 20+ Democratic candidates for the US presidential nomination. Even he, though, is here standing ‘so near and yet so far’ from making the crucial connection, for in advocating for nuclear disarmament Korda is working in the climate crisis space, is fighting the good fight for climate justice.
The point was even missed in a September 20 statement by 17 Nobel Peace Laureates, issued by the Nobel Peace-Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which described “global warming” as “the greatest crisis facing humanity today,” a virtual invitation to deal with the ‘lesser’ problem of nuclear weapons after the Big One is solved. That’s not, of course, what they meant: but equating “climate justice” with the sole goal of an end to “the age of fossil fuels” is to eclipse the efforts of those – like themselves! – seeking an end, for the sake of the health of the planet, to the atomic age.
In 1946, a group of prominent nuclear physicists, most of them deeply involved in the development of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, issued a collection of essays with the self-explanatory title One World or None. In his foreword, “Science and Civilization,” the Danish physicist Niels Bohr wrote that “the handling” of the new “precarious situation” will require above all an appreciation “that we are dealing with what is potentially a deadly challenge to civilization itself.” Fostering such an appreciation, Bohr adds, is henceforth “the gravest responsibility” of scientists. Well, in recent decades, scientists have told us something Indigenous and other marginalized voices have been saying all along: that human civilization cannot hope to survive its dependence on either fossil fuels or nuclear weapons.
One world or none? The answer to that question may depend on how we answer this: when it comes to saving the planet, what makes most sense – two movements or one?
Featured image: Original artwork by Christine Gwynn.