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The Ultimate Twosome
Nukes and Climate Change in 2024
Honestly, what strange creatures we are. Nothing stops us when it comes to destruction, does it? (And I’m not even thinking about the utter, ongoing devastation of Gaza.)
I mean, give us credit as the new year begins. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about humanity isn’t our literature, our theater, our movies, the remarkable food we cook, the cities we’ve built, or the endless other things we’ve created. To my mind, it’s the fact that, in our relatively brief time as rulers of this planet, amid a chaos of never-ending wars and conflicts, we’ve come up with not just one but two different ways of doing ourselves (and much of the rest of our world) in.
And that, to my mind, is no small achievement.
Go back a couple of centuries and, even amid humanity’s wars and other conflicts, someone suggesting such a possible future would undoubtedly have been laughed out of the room. It took science fiction — especially H.G. Wells imagining the arrival of murderous Martians — to begin to conceive of such all-too-modern, all-too-apocalyptic world-ending possibilities.
Now, however, there’s no need for fiction at all. There can be no question that, in its “wisdom” (and yes, that definitely needs to be in quotation marks), humanity has indeed come up with two different ways of utterly destroying this planet as a livable habitat.
And there’s no mystery here, either. One is, of course, atomic weaponry. First tested out in the New Mexican desert in July 1945, atomic bombs were then dropped on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that August with devastating effect. Ever since, such weaponry has been held in what might be thought of as an ultimate reserve of potential total destructiveness. Yes, in its two times in use, such weaponry lit up the skies in a blinding fashion, destroying much of those two Japanese cities and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of human beings, both in the moment and in the years that followed from the long-term effects of radiation.
And yet, to put that in perspective, those A-bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” as their American creators dubbed them, used on August 6 and 9, 1945, would today be considered the most modest of “tactical” or “low-yield” nuclear weapons. The major weapons now in the American and Russian arsenals, hydrogen bombs, are — perhaps the best word might be — blindingly more powerful. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, “The warheads on just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine have seven times the destructive power of all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. And the United States usually has ten of those submarines at sea.”
And while, in 1945, only the United States had such weapons, that was bound to change all too quickly. Today, nine countries have nuclear arsenals and there are, at present, nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons on this planet. In the years to come, it’s not likely to end there either, though that would be more than enough weaponry to destroy not just the Earth but untold numbers of other planets. And keep in mind that the major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, are both in the process of “modernizing” their arsenals, while China is visibly rushing to catch up. The U.S. is, in fact, expected to put up to $2 trillion (no, that is not a misprint!) into updating its supply of nukes in the decades to come.
A Nuclear Little Ice Age?
On another cheery note, North Korea, which only joined that crew of nine relatively recently, tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile as 2023 ended. (And don’t think it’s the last country that’s going to go nuclear either.) In addition, what nuclear agreements once existed between the great powers are now largely extinct. Worse yet, with both the major and minor nuclear powers still working hard to build up or “modernize” those arsenals into the distant future, the ability to destroy most life on this planet remains mind-numbingly present and, because we’ve never experienced anything like it, all too hard to grasp.
Among other things, the massive smoke cloud that even a relatively modest — if such a word can be used in this context — nuclear exchange between, say, India and Pakistan would put into the atmosphere could result in a global “nuclear winter” in which billions of people would starve to death. A larger-scale nuclear conflict might even lead to a “nuclear little ice age” that could last thousands — yes, thousands! — of devastating years.
While it’s true that, in the last 78 years, such weaponry has never again been used (except in “peaceful” nuclear tests), it’s hard not to imagine that something suicidal lurks in the make-up of humanity. Otherwise, why would nine countries now possess weapons that could all too literally end it for the rest of us? And sadly, there’s nothing new about any of this. As the superb Jonathan Schell wrote in his classic book The Fate of the Earth in 1982, “Since we have not made a positive decision to exterminate ourselves but instead have chosen to live on the edge of extinction, periodically lunging toward the abyss only to draw back at the last second, our situation is one of uncertainty and nervous insecurity rather than of absolute hopelessness.”
More than 40 years after he wrote that, it remains no less accurate. Somehow, despite our eternal conflicts, not one has ever yet tipped over into a nuclear conflagration, but the danger remains. After all, it seems that, among our other traits, we humans are all too incapable of not making war. At this moment, in fact, one side in each of the two major wars on this planet, in Ukraine and Gaza — Russia and Israel — is nuclear armed. Last July, a senior Russian official, Dmitry Medvedev, fearing a coming Ukrainian “counteroffensive,” said: “Just imagine that the offensive… in tandem with NATO, succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away. Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree. There simply wouldn’t be any other solution. Our enemies should pray to our fighters that they do not allow the world to go up in nuclear flames.”
Not Noticing the Ultimate Threat to Humanity?
Nor, in truth, is there anything new about the second way we humans have discovered to turn our world into a burning ember. As Schell also noted in 1982, while describing the nuclear horror that we could visit on ourselves and this planet: “Nuclear explosions are far from being the only perturbations in question; a heating of the global atmosphere through an increased greenhouse effect, which could be caused by the injection of vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air (for instance, from the increased burning of coal), is another notable peril of this kind.”
Notable indeed! And it’s no less notable, I think, that Schell was aware of such a second human-induced, planet-destroying possibility so long ago, though most of us have only become aware of climate change later. He was early indeed in his recognition of that reality (though the way greenhouse gases could heat our atmosphere had been known to a few of us from the end of the nineteenth century). And sadly, while humanity’s nuclear weapons have been relegated to what might be considered the back burner, that “greenhouse effect” hasn’t. Anything but, in fact.
Unlike those thousands of devastating weapons, the weather bomb that has now visibly burst over this planet was a creation of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution, launched with the burning of coal and then other fossil fuels. Of course, industrial civilization, as it spread across the planet, began to use those slow-motion equivalents of nuclear weapons ever more widely. In the intervening two centuries, greenhouse gases have grown devastatingly abundant in our atmosphere and the planet has heated by nearly 1.5 degrees Centigrade over pre-industrial days. In fact, in November, we even experienced the first (and second) days in our planet’s recorded history when temperatures averaged more than 2 degrees Centigrade and, in that same month, the global average temperature hit 1.75 degrees above pre-industrial times.
Yes, you and I might not be Jonathan Schell, but today, more than four decades after he wrote that side note in his work on the nuclear dangers we then faced, climate change has become an everyday affair. Last year — the hottest in recorded history and possibly in the last 125,000 years — heat records were regularly broken across the planet, month after month, while climate-change-causing greenhouse gases reached record highs in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, record-shattering heatwaves, wildfires, and floods swept across the planet in 2023. My own country had the honor of setting a new single-year record for billion-dollar climate disasters — and that was before the year was even close to over. (It is, by the way, strangely painful to find myself using that word “record” over and over again in this context.)
Last year, during 12 months of — and yes, here I go again! — record heat, each month from June through November set a new average global high. And you know the story all too well (if you’ve been paying any attention at all). Of course, I could go through it all again — the megafires, the droughts, the ever more powerful and devastating storms, those unbelievable 55 days at 110 degrees or above for Phoenix, Arizona — and that’s only to begin down an ever longer list of “records” that, sadly, is unlikely to seem all that long or impressive in the intemperate future we face.
Worse yet, in the wake of the global COP28 climate meeting in the petro-heart of the Middle East, where the delegates couldn’t agree on a goal of “phasing out,” or even “phasing down” fossil fuel use, but only on “transitioning” away from it, my own country, the United States, the planet’s largest oil and natural gas producer, set another record year in 2023 as its oil production hit an all-time high. And as Roishetta Ozane and Bill McKibben pointed out recently at the Guardian, “The U.S. Department of Energy must decide whether to stop rubber-stamping the single biggest fossil-fuel expansion on earth, the buildout of natural gas exports from the Gulf of Mexico. So far they have granted every export license anyone has requested, and as a result the U.S. has become the biggest gas exporter on planet earth.”
And that’s with Joe Biden at the helm in the White House. At least, he’s made an effort to invest real money in climate change and labeled it “the ultimate threat to humanity.” Just imagine for a moment if the victor in this year’s election is the man who recently swore, on his first day as “dictator” in the Oval Office in 2025, that, above all else, he will “drill, drill, drill.” Or the striking numbers of Americans voting for him who refuse to even believe that the obvious is happening to us. And let’s not forget that, though it’s seldom mentioned, Donald Trump would also once again be the man in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal.
The Blistering of This Planet
Consider climate change, then, a slow-motion version of atomic warfare and, unlike those nukes, greenhouse gases haven’t yet faintly been pushed to one side. Yes, there’s no question that ever less expensive renewable forms of energy that don’t use fossil fuels are on the rise — and a quick rise at that! — but sadly, not quick enough it seems, while the giant fossil-fuel companies simply plough on (as do their profits).
In other words, of the two ways humanity has so far discovered to destroy this planet and everything on it, one is now in something like cold storage (though that could change at any moment), while the other — the slow-motion version of ultimate destruction — isn’t faintly so. In a sense, think of us as in a slow-motion process of burning ourselves out of house and home — and, as is already obvious, it’s only going to get worse before it has any chance of getting better.
It would, of course, be a remarkable achievement for us to turn our backs on the possible destruction of this planet. Unfortunately, as we humans continue to fight our wars in a blistering fashion (themselves, by the way, significant contributors to the ongoing blistering of this planet), we seem strangely incapable of facing what we’re doing in an ultimate sense. Yes, our news programs could in recent months make the war in Gaza — distinctly, a nightmare of the first order — the top news story, day after day after day. But somehow, the news about climate change, the slow-motion but devastating blasting of the planet we live on, never seems to get that kind of attention. Even when the top story of the day or week may be record storms, floods, fires, you name it, the link to the heating of this planet is, if made at all, normally only done so in passing.
And yet that should be the story of all times. We’re talking about the end of the world as we’ve known it. And that should be, but isn’t, the news of our time or of any time.
Welcome to 2024.
Copyright 2024 Tom Engelhardt
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars: The Untold Story.