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Responding to Deadly Connections: the Twin Existential Threats of Climate Change andNuclear War

Lynn Jamieson, Chair, Scottish CND

As one of the first nations to become a major industrial power, the UK is part of the club that set off human-induced global warming. Climate change affects us all, but with more serious and deadly impact for indigenous people in poorer regions of the world that did little or nothing to contribute to the problem. Scientists have spelled out the scale and pace of changes needed to become part of the solution but the UK government’s actions are still
too little, too late. This has many parallels with our nuclear history.

The UK, as a founder member of the small club of nuclear armed states, has continued the development of nuclear weapons throughout every serious coordinated effort to ban them and still devotes more money and resources to nuclear weapons than action to combat climate change (SGR 2021). Moreover, the UK government tested its nuclear weapons in pristine environments making sure their vaporising heat, blast and the worst of their radioactive fallout landed elsewhere, to the detriment of indigenous peoples and all locally living things. 

Our government’s promises to take steps that lead to total nuclear disarmament, made as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, are unfulfilled. They turn their back on the majority of the countries of the world now signing up to a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. When willingness to press the nuclear button (thus destroying the world) is taken as strong leadership, then the stewardship that our planet so urgently needs is outside the mind-set of our politicians.

Our government’s promises to take steps that lead to total nuclear disarmament, made as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, are unfulfilled.

The set of industries and institutions referred to as ‘the military-industrial complex’ are very effective at lobbying for ever more resources. This continues to help drive the twin existential threats of climate change and nuclear war. The nuclear arm of this lobby is particularly powerful. Millions that could be spent on repairing environmental harm go on
advocating for the nuclear industries (ICAN 2020). This includes the lobbying of Scottish MPs and MSPs (Edwards, June and March 2022). 

Scientists for Global Responsibility estimated that the annual amount the UK armed forces and arms industry contribute to global warming is the fossil-fuel-consuming equivalent to 6 million cars on the road (SGR, 2020). It is widely agreed that the US military emits more climate-changing gases than most medium-
sized countries (Crawford 2019). These calculations are largely based on estimates of fuel- consuming business and do not include other harms such as the effects of war or additional factors as the atmospheric heating effects of military high-altitude flying.

Creating, building and maintaining nuclear weapons cause additional environmental injustice and harm by adding dangerous ionising radiation to the environment, even without their explosion. The toxic processes involved in uranium mining at the beginning of the production cycle and the end product of highly radioactive waste, dangerous for thousands of years, are features of both the civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries. 

The two industries remain interlocked, sharing skills, infrastructure (Stirling and Johnstone 2018), a history of harms to indigenous peoples and the legacy of terrible accidents that devastated areas for all species and future generations (ICAN 2023). The continued existence of both these industries mean a constant low-level risk of terrifying catastrophe.

The nuclear weapons industries profoundly and permanently changed the Earth by wrapping it with a new layer of radioactivity, fallout from the hundreds of explosions in the atmosphere, nuclear tests conducted between the 1940s and 70s. All nuclear tests raise background radiation subsequently creating an unknown number of cancers around the world. These are harms that will continue for generations, even if no nuclear weapon is ever used again in war. 

Some scientists point to the signature of radioactivity on the earth as the beginning of the ‘anthropocene’ (Waters and co-authors 2015), a term used to indicate the epoch in which humans dominate the geological formation of the earth for the first time. ‘Anthropocene’ is also the term used by to express the enormity of human impact from burning fossil fuels which have radically changes the earth’s climate.

War inevitably accelerates climate change and environmental harms, sometimes massively. Think of the deforestation caused by the US military repeatedly spraying gallons of herbicide and using napam in the Vietnam War. Remember the burning of oil wells during the Gulf War. Consider the possible meltdown of a nuclear reactor in the current war in Ukraine (SGR 2023). As war intensifies the climate crisis so also the climate crisis makes nuclear accidents
and nuclear war more likely. 

Drought, flooding and sea level rises can threaten the safety of nuclear facilities as well as displace people and create conflict. Climate change is already forcing migration from some parts of the world and increasing tension over resources such as water. Until the nuclear-armed states disarm and dismantle their nuclear weapons, war brings the risk of nuclear war, as demonstrated by the war in Ukraine. More nuclear-armed states or more states joining in a nuclear alliance will inevitably increase the underlying risk. The only long-term solution is to step back from the nuclear brink and instead towards total nuclear disarmament.

‘Ecocide’, attacks on whole ecosystems, habitats and everything that live in them, and ‘genocide’, attacks on a whole nations of people are the twin outcomes of nuclear weapons. The explosion of even a very small proportion of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons would mean catastrophic and irrecoverable damage for most life on earth, including but, of course, not just for people. Climate scientists have modelled the effects on nuclear war on the climate. They conclude that even a modest war, a two-way exchange of 40 nuclear bombs, the number carried by one of the UK’s nuclear armed submarines, would put enough soot in the atmosphere to block out the sun for half the planet. This would cause catastrophic crop failure (Xia and co-authors 2022). This effect is referred to as ‘nuclear
winter’ which might last a decade and the effects of radioactivity for thousands of years.

Meanwhile the underlying global warming would return with a vengeance.

But these horrific threats are a reason for action, not despair. There are many vibrant grass-roots environmental and peace movement organisations in the UK. They are pressuring government to do more to mitigate climate change and to defend the thousands of species being brought to extinction by human activity. They are also pushing back against the lobbying of the military industrial complex and working for nuclear disarmament. Local and national organisations are linked into strong international movements working for the common good of the planet.

At COP26, the intergovernmental meeting to discuss climate change, Glasgow 2021, the nations that started the problem resisted calls to set up a fund to pay for the loss and damage victim countries are suffering because of climate change. But in 2022 all countries finally agreed to the loss and damages fund. The same principle is written into the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which expects the nuclear states to pay victim assistance and remediation of the environmental harms of nuclear testing. Although no nuclear state has yet signed up, a growing number of local authorities within their territories build pressure by demonstrating their support through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Cities Appeal.

The overwhelming majority of members of the Scottish parliament, for example, have pledged their allegiance to the TPNW. The current Scottish government is committed to signing the TPNW and removing nuclear weapons from Scotland should Scotland become an independent nation. This makes the campaign for Scottish independence a possible route to a nuclear disarmament of the UK. There would then be nowhere else for the UK’s nuclear weapons to go. Even if the submarines can find another base, there is no equivalent to the combination of explosive handling facilities and storage bunkers for nuclear bombs at the Royal Naval Armament Depot Coulport (SCND 2014).

Note also that the TPNW has an impact on all the nuclear states even without their signatures. Since coming into force in 2021, billions of pounds have been taken out of investments in nuclear weapons, with over 100 financial institutions completely divesting from nuclear weapons. The TPNW marked the point at which the majority of the countries
of the world refused to accept the threat of nuclear weapons as any country’s legitimate ‘defence’ or ‘security’.

The campaign to protect species other than humans from nuclear weapons is also growing. In March 2023 the European Parliament declared its support for including a law against ecocide in their Directive on protection of the environment through criminal law. If you are reading this, then hopefully you too are in on the action responding to these deadly connections and already part of these movements.

Crawford, N.C. (2019). Pentagon fuel use, climate change, and the costs of war.

Edwards, R. (June, 2022) Industry lobbies MSPs to back nuclear power

Edwards, R. (March, 2022) MoD under fire for lobbying MPs on nuclear weapons

ICAN (2020) ‘Complicit’ report

ICAN (2023) Briefing Paper on Nuclear Weapons, the Environment, and the Climate Crisis

Law on Ecocide

SCND (2014) No Place for Trident (Author John Ainslie)

SGR (2020). The environmental impacts of the UK military sector. (Author: Stuart Parkinson)‐impacts‐uk‐military‐sector

SGR (2021) Nuclear weapons, the military & climate overheating (Author: Philip Webber) Presentation to ‘Nuclear weapons & climate change’ conference; 9 September 2021; Westminster Hall, London, UK

SGR (2022) Does War Cause Climate Change? (Author: Stuart Parkinson) Presentation given
at online workshop as part of Science4Society Week, 17 March

Stirling, A., & Johnstone, P. (2018). A Global Picture of Industrial Interdependencies
Between Civil and Military Nuclear Infrastructures SPRU Working Paper Series (ISSN 2057-
6668). Sussex: Univerity of Sussex. Waters, C.N., Syvitski, J.P., Gałuszka, A., Hancock, G.J., Zalasiewicz, J., Cearreta, A., et al.

(2015). Can nuclear weapons fallout mark the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 71(3), 46-57.

Xia, L. Robock, A. Scherrer, K. and co-authors (2022) Global food insecurity and famine from reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection. Nature Food, issue 3, (August 2022): 586–596.