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The road to Armageddon — our two existential threats and the 2020 US presidential race

January 28, 2020

By Robert Dodge

[Originally published in The Hill on January 24, 2020.]

As we begin this new decade, our world faces great peril from two intertwined existential threats: climate change and nuclear war. Failing to solve these two issues may lead to the end of life as we know it.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advises that we must take definitive action to stop climate change this decade or face catastrophic climate events in the future, fueling social unrest and conflict not seen in the past. The current humanitarian crisis in Syria is playing out as the first climate war in history, bringing the nuclear armed nations of the United States and Russia into direct conflict. Similarly, the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir territory is further heightened over water access from the shared Indus River and its tributaries flowing between the two nuclear armed states. This is a potential flashpoint for the world as agriculture is threatened either by water scarcity from drought, potential damming, or severe flooding during the monsoon seasons with potential crop loss and starvation.

We now know that even a limited nuclear war between these two nations using less than half of 1 percent of the global nuclear arsenals would result in catastrophic global climate disruption and international crop loss putting more than 2 billion people at risk of starvation, a nuclear famine. The latest scientific studies demonstrate an ever-increasing risk as the populations and arsenals of these two countries grow.

Failing to recognize these threats and continuing in our trance-like state of rebuilding our arsenals, threatening to use nuclear weapons while building more “usable“ smaller nuclear weapons — coupled with new technological threats from hypersonic delivery systems to space forces to cyber terrorism — only increases the likelihood of use either by accident, miscalculation or intent.

These facts have led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Thursday to move their globally recognized indicator Doomsday Clock hand forward to 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous level ever. We are in the final 2-minute countdown.

Recognizing the current global threats, Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said, “It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds — not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency — an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, executive chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said, “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder. Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, chair, The Elders, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “We ask world leaders to join us in 2020 as we work to pull humanity back from the brink. The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to come together — to unite and to act.”

Understanding and eliminating the risks posed by these existential threats is critical to our future survival.

We have at once great challenges and opportunities before us.

This year’s US presidential campaign has had no significant questioning or dialogue on the risk of nuclear war. We must demand responses from presidential candidates as to their understanding of the threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons. We must know whether they will continue the new arms race, rebuilding of our arsenal, or if they will provide leadership in moving the US forward in concert with increasing international norms striving to abolish nuclear weapons and support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Failing to articulate a plan to eliminate the clear and present danger from the combined threats of nuclear weapons and climate change is tantamount to high crimes and misdemeanors and can no longer be tolerated.

We must move back from the brink of nuclear war.

There is a growing US movement — “Back from the Brink” — that lays out the common sense steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war, while working together with the other nuclear nations toward a verifiable, negotiated, enforceable effort to abolish nuclear weapons and support the international Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This Treaty is currently ratified by 35 nations and is expected to receive the endorsement of 50 nations by the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in August, allowing it to enter into force 90 days later.

The Back from the Brink campaign has five points:

  1. Renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first
  2. Ending the sole, unchecked authority of any president to launch a nuclear a nuclear attack
  3. Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert
  4. Cancelling the $1.2 trillion plan to replace the entire U.S. arsenal with enhanced weapons
  5. Actively pursuing a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals

This initiative can be endorsed by any and all individuals, cities, counties, states and organizations. Currently 42 municipalities, 4 states and over 350 faith, health, environmental, peace and policy organizations have endorsed the initiative.

Failing to address this “new abnormal” of fires and floods raging across our planet coupled with the increasing risk of nuclear war moves us closer to realizing Einstein’s famous admonition: “With the unleashed power of the atom, we thus move toward unparalleled catastrophe unless we change our mode of thinking.”

The choice is ours. It is 100 seconds to midnight.

Robert Dodge, MD, is a family physician practicing in Ventura, Calif. He is the President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (www.psr-la.org), and sits on the National Board serving as the Co-Chair of the Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons of IPPNW’s US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org).

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