A version of this article first appeared in Earth Island Journal. I offer my thanks to the editors for the permission to repost it here.
I have a confession to make. So focused on the existential threats of climate change, biodiversity decline, soil loss, population growth, antibiotic misuse, and other slow-to-unfold ways humanity can destroy itself, I spend little time thinking about the instantaneous way: nuclear annihilation.
I was born in the late 1970s and grew up in the ‘80s, so I’m just a little young for the “duck and cover” exercises that petrified the generation before me (including missing out on the ABC direct-to-TV blockbuster, The Day After). And while over my career as a sustainability researcher, I have studied and written about phasing out nuclear power and guarding the waste for millennia to come, for some reason the threat of blowing ourselves up in one cinematic finale always seemed contained. Of course no leader would start World War III, at least not on purpose, and with the Cold War over, this threat was reduced even further.
However, the world has changed in these past years. The United States elected an unstable, and let’s admit not the most intelligent, man to the presidency—one who after inciting an insurrection at the Capitol, concerned the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Mark Milley, enough that Milley required any military action initiated by President Trump to first be cleared by him. (Who would’ve thought that the military briefly escaping civilian control could bring relief not horror?) But then, when the democratic systems held and Trump left office without further violence, my internal doomsday clock dropped a few minutes back.
Now, however, my clock reads 11:59:35.1 Climate change and all the other disasters continue to tick worse, worse, worse, every year, bringing us ever closer to midnight. Add to that Putin invading Ukraine, and nukes of all sizes are suddenly on the table. While I hope Biden wouldn’t retaliate even with tactical nuclear weapons (choosing to use conventional ones instead), would that trigger further use by Putin? I acknowledge that I am not versed enough in military nuclear strategy to know. But the bigger point is that the threat of nuclear war is higher that it has been probably since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Though that’s not the only time we’ve almost blown ourselves up: there have been a number of close calls over the years, including, reportedly, one when a drunk Richard Nixon authorized a tactical nuclear attack against North Korea, which brings us back to the point of not having unstable individuals in charge of nuclear weapons.)
The New Clear Threat
The fact that a nuclear war would destroy the world is often left unthought—like when someone lives directly downstream of a dam and underestimates or even disregards the threat that the dam could fail. But for environmentalists, devoting their lives to protecting Earth, it is foolish to try to save endangered species, or fight deforestation, or combat soil loss, and ignore the possibility that one nuclear war could wipe all of this away. And not just a full onslaught. Of course that would destroy much of life—and probably all or most people—and possibly even Earth’s ability to reseed life in the future. But even a limited exchange of a hundred small nukes (Hiroshima-sized, which are nauseatingly considered small) by Pakistan and India could cause a devastating famine and through that possibly the loss of a billion lives around the globe.2
So, in that context, it seems unwise to yield this realm completely to peace activists and policymakers. Environmentalists should weigh in too, especially now, when a recent Pew survey found that 35 percent of Americans would take military action to defend Ukraine even if it risked nuclear war (See Sidebar). I’d argue that can only be because we no longer understand (and therefore no longer truly fear) the threat of nuclear war. We do not understand that one exchange could kill a billion people or more likely end human civilization and even life on this planet. Ultimately, there are two issues here. First: the existence of nuclear weapons in the first place. They threaten all of us (an actual collective we for once) right now, and even more as the climate emergency accelerates and the controls on nuclear weapons weaken.3 But there’s a second and perhaps more pressing issue: how many checks and balances are there on the leaders who do control the nuclear button?
Could Putin or Some Future Madman Use Nukes?
There is enough analysis in the news to not make this about if/how/when Putin could use nukes and how we would respond (see here, here, and here). The bigger question is what if there are scenarios—in this or future conflicts—that are not predictable. I heard a rumor—completely unsubstantiated—that Putin is toward the end of his life. This is so unsubstantiated that I hate to even write it. But the bigger point: What if a dictator is diagnosed with a terminal illness and wants to take the whole world with him when he goes? Pharaohs in ancient times did that. And toddlers imagine the world pauses while they sleep. The question is: Are there any checks and balances that could stop a dictator from willfully destroying the world?
And of course, nukes allow aggressors to be less hesitant. What would have happened if Hitler had come into power when the world was already nuclear armed? Would the Allies have risked a nuclear war over Poland? The Netherlands? And I’m not even factoring in the complexity of adding tactical nukes to the mix. In the current Russo-Ukrainian War, could this war escalate with nuclear weapons?
I recognize this is not my expertise. The point I’m trying to make is that nuclear weapons may be a greater threat—to humans and to Gaia—than even climate change. We, environmentalists, should not just focus on nuclear guardianship over the millennia to come, but on disarmament and, in a more nuanced way, find a way to create checks and balances in those countries holding weapons. No single person should control the nuclear launch codes—and perhaps in some countries that’s already the case. But if not—as is the case in the US—are there ways to adjust the rules nationally and even internationally to do this?
The Peace Dividend
There’s a scene in Superman IV where Superman declares he will rid the planet of all nuclear weapons and then proceeds to catch all the nukes, launched into flight, and hurls them into the sun, permanently ending the nuclear threat (an inspiring scene if you ignore what would’ve happened if Superman missed one).
Even better would be if we agreed to phase down and eventually abolish all nuclear weapons, as we could solve several issues simultaneously. First, uranium mining is a horrific and toxic endeavor.4 Like all mining it scarifies Gaia’s skin, and worse, it spreads radioactive dust into surrounding communities, sprinkling pollution that’ll remain toxic for thousands of years. The same goes with nuclear refining and storage. The nuclear power plants that exist might be necessary to generate energy—especially in this decarbonization transition-stage—but the fuel could come from de-enriched uranium rather than mined uranium. This could provide enough uranium for years of nuclear fuel, and as more plants are retired (as they reach the end of their relatively short lifespans) both this fuel, and the demand for it, would shrink.5
Of course, the best part would be that the risk of nuclear annihilation—either as a geopolitical ‘option’ or if civilization collapses and the warlords that hold onto regional power collect and utilize these—would go down with each warhead dismantled.
What is the Current State of Abolition?
The effort to abolish nuclear weapons began even before the first nuclear bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, Manhattan Project nuclear physicist Leo Szilard had already drafted a petition and submitted it to President Truman opposing the use of nukes against Japan on moral grounds.
1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell called for efforts to end nuclear war and indeed war altogether. Soon after a plethora of organizations sprang up to start fighting for the end of nuclear war, including ending testing, limiting the total numbers of weapons, and so on.
Groups like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) have worked over decades to mobilize civil society to reduce the risks of nuclear war. As have religious groups like the Quakers, who have been a spiritual force for peace and justice throughout their history. Organizations like The Council for a Livable World, founded by Szilard in 1962, have fought for 60 years to get policymakers to rein in the threat of nuclear war.
Over the years there have been major successes. Like the former satellites of the Soviet Union (including Ukraine) returning their nuclear weapons to Russia. Like South Africa dismantling the nukes it developed. Like Southeast Asia and Africa committing to stay nuclear free. Most recently, the UN passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, which spells out a “comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities,” including undertakings “to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.” In January 2021 the treaty came into effect with 60 countries having now ratified it. With that legal tool, activism is now clearer than ever: getting one’s country to ratify this treaty. Of course, for those with nukes that’ll be extra difficult, but there are some winnable short-term targets that could be pursued simultaneously.
In the Short Term
I do think it’s unrealistic to imagine that the nuclear powers are going to fully disarm (not that citizens shouldn’t push for this) but is there a way to better secure both the weapons and create stronger protocols around their use in the short term as organizing around nuclear abolition proceeds? I’ve always worried about warheads walking away as countries fail—and the US did a good job preventing that during the Soviet Collapse. But who will do that for the United States if/when it fails? And if no one, what will happen to those warheads?
One immediately implementable change would be to get rid of land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. As former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg explains, this would lower costs, reduce the threat of war—even if the US made this change unilaterally—while not reducing US security (missiles on bombers and submarines are more than enough of a deterrent). Silos, being fixed targets and on a hair-trigger, force the president, if attacked, to make a “use ‘em or lose ‘em” decision that makes nuclear war more probable (versus bombers and subs which are moving and hidden targets). Best of all (though not mentioned) dismantling these could prevent these missiles from falling into hands of feuding governors of a US split apart by civil war. Submarines can be held by the remaining United States leadership (in theory) or maybe even relinquished to an ally and the nukes dismantled as part of an eventual peace process.6
Second, there’s a bigger and more urgent issue that is only now starting to be discussed: that of adding in more than one person to make the decision to use nuclear weapons. Last year, 31 Democratic members of the house sent a letter to the White House encouraging President Biden to consider alternative ways to organize nuclear authority, such as having the Vice President and Speaker of the House agree. (It also offered alternatives like requiring a Declaration of War from Congress, or having the Secretary of Defense and Attorney General agree that it’s valid and legal before use.) It should go without saying that the idea of the entire Congress weighing in would be impossible, but shifting from one person to a triumvirate seems optimal. The president would still be the one vested with the power, but if the other two declared use not legal or thought the president acting in a moment of compromise, they could stop it. (But they could never override the president 2-to-1 to launch nukes.)
While the suggestion of the Secretary of Defense and Attorney General seems workable, perhaps it makes even more sense to appoint two individuals (with military, legal, and intelligence backgrounds) to a specific Nuclear Council (and approved by the Senate).7 They could have an office in the White House and study nuclear issues all day long and have only one job: to offer counsel to the president if nuclear weapons are on the table. One could argue that’d be a waste of $300,000 a year for two salaries, but I think that’s a reasonable cost for lowering the risk of nuclear annihilation. The Council might even become a voice in the president’s ear for further nuclear arms control efforts. Between abolition and these smaller interim steps, there’s a lot of work to do. And clear goals. So how should environmentalists get involved?
Only You Can Prevent Nuclear Annihilation
Granted, there feels like enough to do with climate change and the other existential environmental challenges we face. But the nuclear threat is real, and existential to its very core. So what’s the best way you, as an environmentally-minded individual, as a local group, or as a larger environmental organization, can get involved in the fight for nuclear sanity? With so many groups working on this issue, and so few well-known, it’s hard to decide how to get involved. But there are many ways to plug in.
As an Individual
Admittedly, it’s a bit overwhelming to know where to start. First and easiest is to sign onto this new petition on avaaz calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Signed by several Nobel Peace Prize laureates and organized by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, this is a 30-second way to get involved.
But there are more lasting ways to engage as well. When signing up for ICAN’s newsletter, the auto-reply invited me to be a “social media ambassador” for ICAN, get more friends to sign up, or donate—a less than empowering call to action. If you are on social media, advocating for the end of nukes is a good thing (certainly better than sharing your breakfast pics). But more strategic would be regularly sending letters to your government leaders—and asking your friends to do the same. One invitation you can send to your political leaders is to sign the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge, which commits them for fighting for the ratification of the UN treaty in their country. Currently, no senators and only 11 representatives (out of 441) have signed this in the US, so yours probably hasn’t.8
As a Local Group
As mentioned, the Quakers have been a nuclear dynamo when it comes to this fight, risking life and liberty to protest the insanity of nuclear arms. But any church or local group could do the same, organizing protests, letter writing campaigns, pushing elected officials and candidates to take a stronger position—including for short-term interventions like dismantling silos and shifting how nuclear authorization works. Easy steps here are to broach the local groups you’re part of and see what actions they’d be willing to take. And for inspiration check out this judge praising non-violent anti-nuclear demonstrators in Ohio who were arrested for trespassing at a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility.
As a National Group
Environmental advocacy groups should fold into ongoing coalition efforts—for example adding their organizations to ICAN’s 600+ partners (this goes for local groups too). Perhaps it even makes sense to create an umbrella organization, say ENVANA or Environmentalists Against Nuclear Annihilation—to draw out the deep ecological threats (rather than just the human ones) that nuclear war entails. But it certainly makes no sense for environmental groups working so hard to protect Earth to not get involved in this pivotal fight.
Ultimately, this is a fight that, while seemingly peripheral to the many other challenges we face, is paramount to our survival and securing the other efforts we’re so dedicated to. Adding your voice, as an individual, through your local community or religious group, and through the national organizations you are part of, will help move the needle on this, and perhaps even help move the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock back a few.
1) The official Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has the time at 11:58:20. But that is updated annually (January 2022). Russia invading Ukraine should shift the time forward by some seconds.
2) And if this small exchange starts as a tactical or limited nuclear war between superpowers, in most simulations these end up becoming larger nuclear exchanges, as discussed in this conversation between Nate Hagen and risk expert Chuck Watson.
3) I’m working under the supportable assumption that as we fail to address climate change, population growth, and other fundamental environmental challenges—as fires, floods, and famines dislocate people—many states will fail and others will radicalize, defending their borders violently. It will not be a time conducive for protecting arsenals of nuclear weapons (or for that matter, functioning nuclear power plants that rely on a steady source of power and water for cooling).
4) Plus 16 percent of the US’s uranium currently comes from Russia. One more reason to use stockpiled uranium instead.
5) I do not think nuclear energy has a future—even as countries and companies continue to invest in “advanced reactors”—and should not, considering its massive security and environmental risks. But I do not think, like Germany and Japan did, that all nuclear power plants should be shut down immediately. The increase in CO2 emissions would be too great. And the carbon has already been invested in the nuclear power plant infrastructure (in the form of huge amounts of cement). So as long as they are working safely—and society and the climate are still relatively stable—they should continue to operate while we convert weapons-grade uranium to fuel.
6) Of course an unpaid submarine captain could drive these elsewhere and sell them, but I assume most captains take their charges deadly seriously.
7) This should not be a lifetime appointment, but perhaps a 10-year non-renewable term. It could be counterproductive if two senile nonagenarians made up the council.
8) In addition, if you’re in a country that holds nuclear weapons, in the short-term, you could ask leaders to reduce total arms, and create a more robust system to check (and prevent) their use. If your country has already signed the treaty, you could ask leaders to push allies into doing the same. Need a basic letter template? Try this one.