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Nuclear weapons should be environmentalists’ top priority

Top environmental priority? Nukes  John Havelock Rising sea levels, polluted water, air quality deterioration, climate warming: These are the expressed priorities of the environmental movement. They are easy to understand and maybe it’s not too hard to figure out what to do once persuasion prevails. A far superior priority is too easily neglected: the environmental threat posed by nuclear weapon proliferation and growth in risk of use.

As mathematical theorist and songwriter Tom Lehrer once famously sang, “We’ll all go together when we go, every Hottentot and every Eskimo.” Lehrer was describing the Cold War exploding into a hot war. “Mutually assured destruction,” as it was called at the height of the Cold War, is still far from impossible.

A slightly slower chain reaction of violence can lead to the same result as one vengeful hydrogen bomb is lobbed in response to another. Opportunities for accidentally escalating destruction are still around. Remember World War I.

One of the reasons why the nuclear problem doesn’t get much attention is that the chances of the whole thing going to hell in any one year are variable but low. Current probabilities have caused the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the needle of their Doomsday Clock back to just a couple of minutes to midnight after enjoying a distance of more than a quarter hour after the Nonproliferation Treaty was signed. Odds on any one year may seem low, but low odds over 20 or 30 years add up to a probability.

The world has been conscious of this risk for some time. The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into effect with enough signatures in 1970. Some 191 nations signed the treaty. North Korea tiptoed to the edge before exiting. India, Pakistan, Sudan and Israel never signed. These countries also pose an environmental threat, if not as bombastically declared as North Korea. Even Israel, as rational as its leadership may be, has indicated it will do whatever is required if faced with an “existential threat.”

Under the treaty, countries acknowledging a nuclear arsenal (the Big Boys) agreed that they would reduce their arsenals with the ultimate (if difficult to imagine) goal of completely eliminating weapons of this type, like poisonous gas munitions, to note the 1925 Geneva Protocol as a precedent.

Russia and the United States went through one reduction exercise. That was it. Their bargain was effectively nullified more recently as they “replenished stocks,” not technically an expansion, and invented new, smaller, artillery applications that might make the use of nukes more acceptable in war — say, in the Ukraine.

As a matching treaty trade-off to Big Boy reductions, those who joined up without having developed nukes agreed never to do so, hence the title “Nonproliferation.” The Big Boys agreed also to share peaceful nuclear technology with those who eschewed bomb development. Nonproliferation worked, taking the heat off many countries that otherwise might have had to show their military manhood by developing nuclear arms. It also served as a precedent for the Iran agreement.

Despite the treaty agreement, nations possessing nuclear arms are estimated still to have arsenals totaling around 22,000 weapons, easily enough explosive and radiation capacity to make life on Earth impossible for mammals.

North Korea’s eager embrace of nuclear arms development and expansion should help international policies to catch up on the total environmental risk.  Early presidential talk of a U.S. nationalist response, including “on the table” military response via “preemptive war,” was alarming. Anything like that could not be contained. In stage one, we set the stage for millions of South Koreans to die. China may well follow the example, taking Taiwan. The U.S. responds per its agreements, the Russians move on Ukraine, etc.

Kudos to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for taking the problem to the U.N., and good for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for her sharp attention to the issue. North Korea’s nuclear arms development is an international environmental problem, not just a local military-political problem for the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

It would help if the environmental movement prioritized this concern. As with so many issues of our times, economic, military, social and nationalist responses are outdated, “whack-a-mole” solutions. As Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate contesting FDR’s last term, forecast, “The world is small and the world is one.”

John Havelock, a vet, former White House Fellow, public official, UAA professor and ADN columnist, has long been a student of international affairs. 


May 5, 2017 - Posted by | environment

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