There’s no question in my mind that human-driven climate change has to be one of the biggest own-goals humanity has ever struck on itself. And we should have seen it coming. I mean, we’ve been pushing combustion products into the atmosphere in ever-larger quantities since the advent of industrialisation, over 200 years ago. We’ve been burning up fossil fuels, polluting the environment, hacking down forests and generally creating ecological mayhem at ever-increasing scale and speed. What did we think would happen?
When I say ‘one of’ the biggest own goals, to my thinking there’s only one other totally massive own-goal in the same league; the invention of nuclear weapons. And it’s a bigger one. The thing about human-driven climate change is that ultimately it’s not risking end-game. It’ll likely reduce what we call our civilisation. It’ll change the ecology in ways that aren’t convenient for those who feel they are entitled to first exploit the labour of the economically powerless, and then deny that the waste products of industry fuelled by such practises are destroying our future. After this has played out, Earth won’t be able to support the scale of humanity and its idiotic wastage, as we have today. But the world won’t blow up and disappear; it’ll just get ugly, slowly. And the poor and the powerless, we can be sure, will suffer the most along the way.
The issue with nuclear weapons, though, is that they’ll turn the world ugly much faster. Worse, the technology of nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, and all the international controls on them, including general moral condemnation and the fact that my country, New Zealand, passed laws against all matters nuclear over 30 years ago, haven’t stopped at least one rogue state from making their own nukes. Damn. There’s also the break-down of the treaty control system – some major nations have renounced them and are about to embark on new nuclear weapons programs.
Yeah, I know it’s the human thing. We always do this, as a species. What ever happened to tolerance and the idea that kindness is a virtue? Sigh…
Well, there’s one example. Back in 1983, when the Cold War was at its height, humanity came very close to nuclear armageddon. All that stopped it was one Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov (1939-2017), who decided that reports of an incoming US nuclear strike were false. Without his judgement – which was, of course, right – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ policy of both Cold War opponents would have followed, doing apocalyptic damage to both super-powers at the very least – quite apart from any allied nations and the fate of all in the fallout zones. It would also have likely triggered the nightmare ‘nuclear winter’ scenario in which burning cities suffered Dresden-style firestorms, sending carbon into the stratosphere above the rain level and blocking out the sun across the world for an extended period.
We might go ‘phew’, but don’t think that this spectre ended with the Cold War, back in the early 1990s. No such luck. Recent studies suggest that a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange, between (say) Pakistan and India, and involving maybe 100 nuclear weapons, might be enough to trigger the same ‘nuclear winter’ scenario, dropping food production globally. You could call this ‘super-accelerated climate change’; but I see it in a different league – faster, specific, and with fallout and radiation effects that compound the damage. It happen essentially overnight, as such things go – perhaps on the back of some political crisis that might brew up in just a few months. Human-driven climate change is far slower – slow enough, as we’ve seen, to fuel efforts to deny it.
So to me, nukes are the more immediate and instant own-goal, in a league of their own, and I say this even nearly three decades after the end of the ‘Cold War’. As Einstein remarked in 1945, these weapons change everything, except the way we think. And that’s the problem. It turns out that humanity isn’t a particularly nice species, and our hard-wired drive to dominate, exploit and destroy each other is perhaps unprecedented in the animal kingdom. War and violence defines our history in many ways. Hmmn… And then we invented nukes. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019