It is absolutely right that the eyes of the world have been on Glasgow and on the failure of COP26. Climate catastrophe is certain unless we take the radical repair measures immediately. However, this essential focus does mean that little attention is being paid to another looming crisis with equally catastrophic potential – the danger of a war that could go nuclear.
In many ways the present global situation is reminiscent of the decades leading up to WW1. There was the wrestling between states anxious to have the best trade routes and zones for exploitation. There were the parading of ever more powerful navies and armies. Old hegemonies were being challenged. There was the fear of encirclement by hostile forces. There was a tangle of alliances that was set to widen any localised conflict. The rivalry and the perceived threats were hyped by the press. The arms companies became more and more hopeful of rich profit. There was the vain hope that the bluffing and “deterrence” which had seemed to work in the past would continue to work in the future. In the background were the hawks and warmongers keen to press the buttons of narrow nationalism and paranoia. And as Europe slithered towards disaster it became too late to stop the momentum.
It is almost too easy to sketch in the present parallels – the swelling of military budgets, the nuclear weapons arms race – from hypersonic gliding missiles to ever smarter targeted warheads, the near collapse of arms control measures, the posturing, growling and snarling, our infantile brinkmanship with navies and air forces. During the Cold War a (very) relative return to something like sense took place following the Cuban Missile Crisis and again after the insane confrontations of the early 80s. In 1914 the peace-seeking elements in European governments would have hoped that there would be a recoil from the brink following the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Instead, the outcome was four years of horror. And in 2021 there is little sign of a mature leadership among the big powers that could put a foot on the brakes.
We need to recognise that the destruction that unchecked climate change will unleash fully within decades can be achieved in just a few days in a global nuclear exchange. Even a “limited” nuclear conflict, for instance between India and Pakistan, would lead to starvation for millions due to the “nuclear winter” effect. Climate change that is not addressed is as inevitable as the progress of dry-rot in a building. The nuclear war threat is the petrol can on a wobbly table near the open fire. So far, so good, but the longer it sits there the more closely the risk approaches inevitability. In our nuclear history the can has been steadied several times as it threatened to topple. We have been very, very lucky. The next rational step is to remove it from that perilous location permanently, otherwise we will continue to rely on a luck that one day will surely run out. That is why the world so urgently needs the comprehensive and unambiguous terms of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – elimination is the only sane response. Fortunately, as support for the TPNW grows, so too does an equally fast growing global movement to take immediate action to address the dangers we face, de-escalating conflicts and co operating to protect life on the planet instead of making preparations to fight each other. Hopefully it will succeed. Otherwise there is no future.