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The Climate Change Peril and the Nuclear Peril: Different in both Magnitude and Immediacy

October 15, 2009

by Tad Daley

It is difficult to dispute that global climate change poses the single greatest long-term peril to human civilization, at least as such things can be perceived from our present vantage point. However, it is equally difficult to dispute that the nuclear peril — in its many incarnations — poses the single greatest immediate such peril. Although climate change is undoubtedly already having profound effects in certain areas, its most worrisome impacts probably still lay some two or three or five decades down the road. But a major world city, without any warning, could suddenly disappear into a vaporized radioactive cloud tomorrow morning. All in the blink of an eye, the snap of a finger, the single beat of a human heart.

It could be a successful attack by nuclear terrorists. (It is well documented that both Al Qaeda and other militant groups have aspired to carry out such an attack, and explored the routes by which they might do so.) It could be an accidental nuclear launch, of one or 101 nuclear warheads. (Hardly any Americans know that thousands of nuclear weapons, in American and Russian and other arsenals, remain poised on hair-trigger alert, and that dozens of near accidental nuclear launches have taken place in the history of the nuclear age – some with only minutes to spare.) It could be a hot political crisis between one or more nuclear-armed countries, with some leader under intense pressure, sweating, getting advice from five sides, hasn’t slept in three days, getting harassed about something or other by his wife or his kids or his mistress … and he decides to push the button. (The world came close to such an eventuality during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Able Archer episode in 1983, and possibly on several other occasions as well.) Alternatively, it could be not political calculations turning into nuclear miscalculations in a moment of fear and uncertainty and panic, but instead a sober, considered, rational calculation by the leadership of some state that for some international political tangle, the benefits of a nuclear first strike exceed the costs. (If that sounds fantastic, consider that the Administration of George W. Bush proffered just such a possibility in its December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, named seven states as the possible targets of an American nuclear first strike, and – according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine – seriously considered actually carrying one out against the nation of Iran.)

Moreover, no matter how badly we screw up the Earth’s climate in the century or so to come, it is difficult to conceive of any scenario where such changes could wipe out the entire human race, let alone our planet’s entire vast circle of life. Not so with the nuclear weapons. The worst-case scenario in the nuclear realm – one that we survived so precariously for nearly half a century and one that we may well have to confront again – is extinction. Not even just the extinction of our own species, but indeed perhaps of all species. The eradication of all life on our planet. Brought about by our own hands.

“There’s something so extreme about these weapons and their capacity to destroy much of the world’s population that has a dimension of absurdity,” says the psychiatrist and writer Robert Jay Lifton. “In my view, the only relatively accurate kind of perception of nuclear weapons is to see them in their apocalyptic dimension, in their world-destroying dimension. … One has to draw upon the apocalyptic dimension of what they do, and one also has to draw on the absurdity of us destroying our species by our own technology …”

To say that forever until the end of time we must base our national security on the threat to incinerate millions of innocents – and the possibility of exterminating us all – must be among the most profoundly cynical doctrines imaginable. What could be more immoral than that? What possible “national security” justification could there be for that? What kind of people are we just to complacently accept that? Even the barest possibility that we could conduct such an act, in one quick orgy of miscalculation or misunderstanding, must be beyond all toleration. The continued deployment of the nuclear weapon in national military arsenals, at bottom, represents a profound failure of our political and moral ingenuity. Surely, it is within the power of the human imagination to come up with some other, better ideas, for maintaining peace on earth.

Writing Fellow, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

Author, APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, Forthcoming from Rutgers University Press, March 2010.

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