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The banner reads, 'Don't Nuke The Climate.' (Photo: Wise International)

US at the Crossroads: Start a New Nuclear Arms Race? Or Address Climate Change and Human Needs?

Kevin Martin

What if I have little time left? How should I spend my time? Most people face these questions in terms of their own lifespans. But what if the subject of these sentences changes from “I” to “we?” What if the subject is not an individual, but humanity? What if climate change is shortening our human lifespan (and that of many species) to just a few decades?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), August was the 16th consecutive month of record temperatures for the planet. July was the hottest month on record worldwide, until it was tied by August. Persistent drought conditions already threaten water supplies and agricultural breadbaskets in the U.S. and elsewhere

Arctic and Antarctic ice are melting at unprecedented rates, as are glaciers in many countries, promising global sea level rise that will threaten cities and countries everywhere. Glacier National Park in Montana may have to change its name before too long, as the glaciers are melting rapidly.

The U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation calculates Americans are five times more likely to die in a “human extinction event” such as nuclear war, climate change-driven catastrophe or pandemic, than to die in a car crash. One prominent climate scientist, Guy McPherson of the University of Arizona, thinks humanity may not survive past 2030, fourteen years from now, from climate change and the resulting breakdown in our food and water supply, and in the social order. We are already seeing wars driven by climate change, the calamity in Syria perhaps the most prominent example. The CIA and Pentagon clearly state climate change is helping drive armed conflict in many regions, and expect it to get worse.

Nobody can know with any certainty at this point how much time humanity has left on Earth. However, the question of whether we have 14 years left, or 50 or 250, or much longer, doesn’t matter all that much. The amount of money we’re about to squander on a New Nuclear Arms Race, projected at $1 trillion over thirty years, is indefensible. Our tax dollars and focus need to be on protecting life on Earth, not threatening its extinction.

A New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Wants That?

Under the benign or even positive heading of “nuclear modernization,” the United States plans to spend an estimated $1 trillion (it will surely be more than that – when was the last time an exorbitant military project came in under budget?) to overhaul every part of our nuclear weapons enterprise over the next three decades. Weapons laboratories, warheads, missiles, planes and submarines are all slated to be upgraded.

Predictably, every other nuclear weapons state (Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) is following suit and planning similar Dr. Strangelovian upgrades to their arsenals. So our folly not only makes the world more dangerous in terms of nuclear proliferation, it provides “leadership” down the dark path of fear and destruction for countries that can afford this investment even less than we can.

Besides  the opportunity cost of investing in new nukes – money that won’t go to cancer research, affordable housing, health care for all, infrastructure repair and building the green economy – what baffles is the lack of democracy and accountability. Did anybody vote for this? Did any politicians run on this platform? Certainly not President Obama, who ran on reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide, yet agreed to The New Nuclear Arms Race proposal in exchange for ratification of the modest New START agreement with Russia, a very poor trade-off.

Regardless of that, the politicians and government employees who have hatched this mad scheme work for us. We pay their salaries, and our tax dollars fund the weapons and the research, and the contracts that go to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and the other merchants of death. When they say there is no money for addressing climate change and human needs, that’s a lie. It’s going to the endless war machine. An interesting data point – the UN Environment Program estimates it will take about $300 billion to adapt to climate change worldwide by 2030. That’s about half the Pentagon’s annual budget.

Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry, in her recent book Thermonuclear Anarchy, makes the crucial argument that our nominal democracy is completely undercut when it comes to human survival, because one person (the president, in the case of the U.S.) can make the decision to start a nuclear war which could end life on Earth.

In the last few weeks, this issue has gotten significant attention, as many are mortified at the prospect of Donald Trump having control of the nuclear “button.” This has had a positive effect in terms of raising this issue, as President Obama is reportedly considering changing U.S. nuclear doctrine to a No First Use policy. Some Members of Congress are also pushing for that, with U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) introducing a bill to prohibit a U.S. nuclear first strike absent a Congressional declaration of war. Sen. Markey has also introduced the SANE Act to significantly cut investment in the New Nuclear Arms Race, and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

This outbreak of democracy regarding U.S. nuclear weapons is healthy, but much more will be needed to stop the colossal squandering of resources on the New Nuclear Arms Race in order to  restore sanity to our budgetary priorities. It’s up to us to determine our future, however long that is. Can we say the future looks brighter, or longer, if we stay on the current course?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin is President of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund, the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with approximately 200,000 supporters nationwide.

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