My dreams are invaded these days by the specter of methane frozen under arctic ice bubbling up as the ice above it melts, setting up a potentially irreversible cycle: more methane, more climate change, yet more methane, yet more climate change. A group of us here in our little coastal Maine town are so disgusted with congressional gridlock and so eager to do something that we have formed a cooperative to help our fellow citizens transition off fossil fuels in their homes. Co-op members walk their talk; outside each meeting it’s a veritable pride of Priuses.
For a couple of decades back in the 1980s, I was haunted by a different flavor of catastrophe: I might hear a real jet roaring overhead but believe in my dreams that I was hearing a fleet of Soviet missiles arcing toward our major cities.
But there are many reasons why global climate change and nuclear weapons are really one issue: They both require a level of international cooperation based on transnational shared self-interest. Even a small nuclear war could cause even more rapid descent into climate chaos. Leaders of great powers have the opportunity to see that, especially because genuine security depends upon resolving the climate challenge, maybe there is a grand bargain to be made to cut international spending for nuclear weapons systems where everybody can win big.
Even if a nuclear exchange somehow remained below the threshold necessary to cause a nuclear winter, far from resolving whatever conflict engendered it, it would only create conditions thousands of times worse than when any given war began. The weapons, no matter who owns them, are strategically useless. Don’t take my word; ask Henry Kissinger, who spends his declining years advocating steps toward abolition. Yes, there is the nuclear terror issue, but the solution to that is to have fewer weapons and components floating around. Moreover, all the nuclear weapons in the world won’t deter an extremist.
Meanwhile the United States is a case study in the tail of out-of-control defense spending wagging the dog of policy. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Navy plan to build 12 new Ohio class submarines, six-hundred-foot behemoths of mass destruction. Professor Lawrence Wittner reports that to build deploy and maintain this fleet, scheduled to be phased in by 2031 and to operate until 2070, would cost about 350 billion in today’s dollars—an amount so great that the Navy worries about how it will squeeze other shipbuilding priorities, and the Congress has begun to think about how to fund it outside the parameters of the regular budget. Of course the U.S. is not alone in its insanity: six other nuclear powers seem to be in the process of expanding or renewing their own submarine hardware.
350 billion dollars would buy an awful lot of solar panels, windmills, fusion research, and desalinization plants for the water-starved in our own country and abroad. It seems remarkable that no leader has initiated some kind of international conference to address our horrendous misplacement of resources. Imagine the heads of the nuclear powers realizing that they could divert those hundreds of billions of dollars/yen/rubles/rupees/pounds/Euros presently designated for ultimately useless weapons into projects that would contribute to some genuine increase in peoples’ health, like cleaning up the air in Peking or Moscow. Treaties are especially feasible because our technical capabilities can bypass trust and go right to verification. Nothing would increase global security more than authentic, substantive mitigation of climate chaos, with the dividend of mitigating fears of nuclear apocalypse at the same time.