Nuclear weapons, climate change and prospects for survival

Nuclear weapons, climate change and prospects for survival

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By Noam Chomsky *

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

He hadn't been in office for three months when he traveled to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to say a few words about the planet's nuclear dilemma. They were words that could have come from an anti-nuclear activist or someone belonging to the then fledgling movement against climate change, not from the president of the United States. While calling for the use of new forms of energy, Barack Obama spoke with rare presidential eloquence about the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons spread and how that fact, if left unchecked, would make his death "inevitable". utilization. He called for "a world without nuclear weapons" and said bluntly: "As the only nuclear power that has used a nuclear weapon, the US has a moral responsibility to act." He even promised to take "concrete steps" to start building a world without such weapons.

Seven years later, here is the record of the first and possibly only American abolitionist president. America's nuclear arsenal - 4,571 warheads (well below the nearly 19,000 in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed) - is still large enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets. According to the US Federation of Scientists, the latest Pentagon figures on such arsenal indicate that “the Obama administration has reduced the US arsenal much less than any other post-Cold War, and that the number of nuclear warheads dismantled in 2015 was the lowest since President Obama took office. " In other words, putting this data in perspective, Obama has done far less than George W. Bush when it comes to reducing the existing US arsenal.

At the same time, our abolitionist president is now leading the so-called modernization of that very arsenal, a huge three-decade-long project estimated to cost at least a trillion dollars, of course before the usual overspending that will occur. . During the process, new weapons systems will be produced, the first “smart” nuclear missiles will be created (think about this: “precision” weapons with much smaller “results”, which means starting to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield ) and God knows what else.

It has achieved a success in the antinuclear field, its agreement with Iran to ensure that this country does not produce such a weapon. Yet such a daunting piece of data from a president apparently determined to put the US on the abolitionist path tells us something about the nuclear dilemma and the weight that the national security state has on his thinking (and, presumably, anyone else's). future president).

It is no small horror that on this planet of ours, humanity continues to drive two apocalyptic forces, each of which - one in a relative instant and the other over many decades - could paralyze or destroy human life as we know it . That should be a sobering fact for all of us. It is the theme that Noam Chomsky reflects on in this essay for his landmark new book Who Rules the World?


In January 2015, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced its famous Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight, a threat level that had not been reached in thirty years. The Bulletin statement explained that such a move towards catastrophe invoked the two most important threats to survival: nuclear weapons and "runaway climate change." The appeal condemned world leaders for “failing to act with the speed and scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe, endangering every person on Earth by failing in what was their most important task: securing and preserving. the health and vitality of human civilization ”.

Since then, there are very good reasons to consider moving the clock hands even closer to the day of the apocalypse.

As 2015 drew to a close, world leaders met in Paris to grapple with the serious problem of "uncontrolled climate change." Hardly a day goes by without new proof of how serious the crisis is. To quote something almost random, shortly before the opening of the Paris conference, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a study that surprised, as well as alarmed, scientists who have been studying Arctic ice . The study showed that an immense Greenland glacier, the Zacharie Isstrom, "had broken off in 2012 from a glacially stable position and had entered a phase of accelerated retreat", an unexpected and unfortunate event. The glacier “contains enough water to raise global sea levels by more than 18 inches if it were to melt completely. And now he's fully into an extreme diet, losing 5 billion tons of mass every year. All that ice is collapsing over the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. "

However, there was little hope that world leaders in Paris "would act with the speed and scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe." And even if by some miracle they had acted like this, it would have been of limited value for reasons that should be deeply troubling.

When the Paris agreement was approved, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who hosted the negotiations, announced that it was "legally binding." I wish that were the case, but there are more than a few obstacles that deserve careful attention.

In all the extensive media coverage of the Paris conference, perhaps the most important phrases were these, buried near the end of a lengthy analysis offered by the New York Times: “Traditionally, negotiators have tried to forge a treaty. legally binding that will need the ratification of the governments of the participating countries to have force. There is no way to achieve that in this case because of the United States. A treaty would be dead if it reached the Capitol without the necessary two-thirds majority vote of a Senate under Republican control. Therefore, optional plans are taking the place of mandatory top-down targets. " And optional plans are a guarantee of failure.

"Because of the United States." More specifically, because of the Republican Party, which is already becoming a real danger to decent human survival.

The findings are underlined in another Times article on the Paris agreement. At the end of a long history praising the achievement, the article notes that the system created at the conference “depends to a great extent on the views of future world leaders who develop those policies. In the US, all Republican candidates running for president in 2016 have questioned or denied the scientific nature of climate change and have voiced their opposition to Obama's climate change policies. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who has been at the forefront of the campaign against Obama's climate change agenda, said: 'Before your international partners uncork the champagne, they should remember that this is an unreachable deal based on an internal energy plan that is probably illegal, that half of the states are trying to stop and that Congress has already voted against it '”

Both parties have been turning to the right during the last generation's neoliberal period. The mainstream Democrats now look a lot like what we used to call "moderate Republicans." Meanwhile, the Republican Party has largely drifted off the spectrum, becoming what respected conservative political analyst Thomas Mann and Normal Ornstein call "a radical insurgency" that has practically abandoned normal parliamentary politics. Drifting to the extreme right, the Republican Party's commitment to wealth and privilege has become so extreme that its actual policies may not attract voters, therefore, they have had to seek a new popular base mobilized in other fields: the Evangelical Christians who await the Second Coming, fanatical patriots who fear that "they" are taking our country from us, recalcitrant racists, people with real grievances who seriously confuse their causes, and others like them who are easy prey for demagogues. and that they can easily become a radical insurgency.

In recent years, the Republican establishment has managed to suppress the voices of the grassroots that had mobilized. But that is over. By the end of 2015, the establishment was showing considerable discouragement and despair at its inability to do so, as the Republican base and its options were out of control.

Republican contenders elected for the upcoming presidential election expressed clear contempt for the Paris deliberations, refusing even to attend the events. The three candidates leading the polls at the time - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson - took the majority evangelical base position: Human beings have no impact on global warming, if such a thing is actually happening.

The other candidates refuse to allow the government to act in this area. Immediately after Obama spoke in Paris promising that the US would be at the forefront of the quest for global action, Congress, under Republican dominance, voted to knock down its recent rules at the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon emissions. . As reported by the press, this was "a provocative message to more than 100 world leaders, in the sense that the US president does not have the full support of his government on climate policy," to put it mildly. Meanwhile, Lamar Smith, Republican chairman of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology, pushed forward with his jihad against government scientists who dare to report the facts. The message is clear. American citizens face an enormous responsibility at home.

A similar story reported in the New York Times that "two-thirds of Americans support the US joining a binding international agreement to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions." And, by a margin of five to three, Americans consider the climate more important than the economy. But it does not matter. They pass over public opinion. That fact, once again, is sending a strong message to Americans. It is your responsibility to heal a dysfunctional political system in which public opinion is a marginal factor. The disparity between public and political opinion, in this case, has very important implications for the fate of the planet.

Of course we shouldn't have any illusions about a "golden age" from the past. However, the facts we have just reviewed constitute significant changes. The weakening of functional democracy is one of the contributions of the neoliberal attack against the world population in the last generation. And this is not just happening in the US; the impact can be much worse in Europe.

The black swan we can never see

Let's move on to another of the (traditional) concerns of atomic scientists setting the doomsday clock: nuclear weapons. The current threat of nuclear war amply justifies its decision in January 2015 to advance the clock two minutes to midnight. What has happened since then reveals even more clearly the growing threat, an issue that, in my opinion, raises insufficient concern.

The last time the doomsday clock was advanced three minutes to midnight was in 1983, around the time of the Reagan administration's Able Archer drills; These exercises simulated attacks against the Soviet Union to test its defense systems. Recently released Russian files reveal that the Russians were deeply concerned about the operations and were preparing to respond, which would have simply meant: END.

We have learned more about these rash and reckless exercises and how the world was heading for disaster from US intelligence and military analyst Melvin Goodman, who was a former CIA divisional chief and senior analyst at the Office of Soviet Affairs in that time. “In addition to the Able Archer exercises and mobilizations that alarmed the Kremlin,” Goodman writes, “the Reagan administration authorized unusually aggressive military exercises near the Soviet border that, in some cases, violated Soviet territorial sovereignty. The Pentagon's risky measures included sending US strategic bombers over the North Pole to test Soviet radar and naval exercises close to the USSR in areas where US warships had not previously entered. In addition, a series of covert operations simulated surprise naval attacks on Soviet targets.

We now know that the world was saved from probable nuclear destruction in those terrifying days thanks to the decision of a Russian officer, Stanislav Petrov, who did not convey to his higher authorities the report from automatic detection systems that the USSR was under a threat. missile attack. Consequently, Petrov took a place alongside Russian submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov, who, at a dangerous time in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, refused to authorize the launch of nuclear torpedoes when submarines were under attack from destroyers. Americans imposing a quarantine.

Other recently revealed examples enrich a truly terrifying record. Nuclear security expert Bruce Blair reports that “the US president came closest to making an inappropriate strategic decision was in 1979, when a NORAD early warning training recording describing a full-scale Soviet strategic strike was inadvertently conducted of the real early warning network. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was called twice in the middle of the night and told that the US was under attack, that he just had to pick up the phone and persuade President Carter that he needed to immediately authorize a full-scale response. , when there was a third call to tell him that it had been a false alarm ".

This newly revealed example brings to mind a critical incident from 1995, when the trajectory of a scientifically equipped Norwegian-American rocket resembled the trajectory of a nuclear missile. This raised Russian concerns, which were quickly passed on to President Boris Yeltsin, charged with deciding whether to launch a nuclear attack.

Blair adds other examples from her own experience. There was a case, at the time of the 1967 Middle East war, "where an actual strike order was sent to the crew of a nuclear aircraft carrier rather than a nuclear drill / training order." A few years later, in the early 1970s, Strategic Air Command in Omaha "relayed a launch exercise order as if it were an actual launch order in a real world." In both cases, the code checks had failed and human intervention prevented the launch. "You see?" Adds Blair. "It was not at all uncommon for that kind of bungling to occur."

Blair made the comments in reaction to a report by aviator Johan Bordne that the US Air Force only recently released. Bordne was serving at the US military base in Okinawa in October 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and also at a time of severe tensions in Asia. The US nuclear alert system had been raised to DEFCON 2, a level below DEFCON 1, when nuclear missiles can be immediately launched. At the peak of the crisis, on October 28, a missile crew was mistakenly authorized to launch their nuclear missiles. They decided no, avoiding a likely nuclear war and joining Petrov and Arkhipov in the pantheon of men who decided to disobey protocol, thus saving the world.

As Blair observed, such incidents were not uncommon. A recent expert study detailed dozens of false alarms during all the years of the revised period from 1977 to 1983; the study concluded that their number fluctuated between 43 and 255 per year. Study author Seth Baum sums up in these apt words: “Nuclear war is the black swan that we can never see except for the brief moment when it is killing us. We defer removal of the hazard at our own risk and expense. It is time to address the threat, because now we are still alive ”.

These reports, like those in Eric Scholosser's book "Command and Control," largely conform to US systems. Russians are certainly much more prone to errors. Not to mention the extreme danger posed by the systems of others, especially Pakistan.

"A war is no longer unthinkable"

Sometimes the threat has not been the result of an accident, but of adventurerism, as in the case of the Able Archer. The most extreme case was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the threat of disaster was all too real. The way to approach this crisis was shocking; just like the usual way of interpreting it.

With this grim background in mind, it helps to look at the strategic plans and discussions. One chilling case was STRATCOM's 1995 Clinton-era study "Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence." The study aims to preserve the right of first strike, even against non-nuclear states. He explains that nuclear weapons are used constantly in the sense that they "cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict." It also calls for an irrational “national character” eager for revenge to intimidate the world.

Current doctrine is explored in the lead article in International Security magazine, one of the most reputable in the field of strategic doctrines. The authors explain that the US is committed to "strategic primacy," that is, isolation from a retaliatory attack. This is the logic of Obama's "new triad" (bolstering the power of submarines, land missiles and bombers), along with anti-missile defense to counter a retaliatory attack. The concern raised by the authors is that the US demand for strategic primacy could induce China to abandon its "not being the first to use nuclear weapons" policy and expand its limited deterrence. The authors think it won't, but the outlook remains uncertain. The doctrine clearly accentuates the dangers in a tense and troubled region.

The same is true of NATO's expansion eastward in violation of the verbal promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev when the USSR was collapsing and he agreed to allow a unified Germany to be part of NATO, a very remarkable concession if one thinks of the history of the century. Expansion into East Germany occurred immediately. In the following years, NATO expanded across the Russian borders; now there are substantial threats even to incorporate Ukraine into the geostrategic heart of Russia. One can imagine how the US would react if the Warsaw Pact were still alive, had incorporated Latin America into it and now Mexico and Canada were requesting its entry.

Apart from that, Russia understands, as does China (and American strategists, for that matter) that the US missile defense systems near Russian borders are, in effect, a first strike weapon with the aim to establish a strategic primacy: immunity from retaliation. Perhaps its mission is totally unfeasible, as some specialists point out. But the targets are never going to trust that. And Russia's militant reactions are very naturally interpreted by NATO as a threat to the West.

A leading British expert on Ukraine puts forward what he calls a "fateful geographic paradox": that NATO "exists to manage the risks created by its very existence."

The threats are very real now. Fortunately, the shooting down of a Russian plane by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015 did not produce an international incident, but it could have, especially given the circumstances. The plane was going on a bombing mission in Syria. It passed for just 17 seconds through a strip of Turkish territory jutting into Syria, and it was clear that it was heading for this country when it crashed. Taking him down appears to have been an unnecessarily reckless and provocative act, an act with consequences.

Russia's reaction was to announce that its bombers would henceforth be accompanied by fighter jets and that it was going to deploy a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system in Syria. Russia also ordered its Moskva aircraft carrier, equipped with a long-range air defense system, to move closer to the coast, so that it was "prepared to destroy any air target that posed a potential threat to our aircraft," the minister announced. Defense Sergei Shoigu. All of this sets the stage for confrontations that could be lethal.

Tensions are also constant on the borders between Russia and NATO, including military maneuvers on both sides. Shortly after the doomsday clock ticked menacingly closer to midnight, the national press reported that “US military combat vehicles were parading through an Estonian city moving into Russia on Wednesday, a symbolic act that marked highlight the stakes on both sides amid the worst tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War. Shortly before, a Russian fighter plane was seconds away from colliding with a Danish civilian plane. Both sides are carrying out rapid mobilizations and redeployment of forces on the border between Russia and NATO forces, and "both believe that a war is no longer unthinkable."

Survival prospects

If that is so, both sides are beyond insanity, because a war could well destroy everything. For decades it has been recognized that a first attack by a major power could destroy the attacker, even without retaliation, simply because of the effects of the nuclear winter.

But this is the world today. And not only today, that is what we have been living for seventy years. The reasoning is startling from top to bottom. As we have seen, the safety of the population is basically not a major concern for politicians. This has been the case since the first days of the nuclear age, when in the centers of political training no effort was made - apparently, not even thought was expressed - to eliminate a potential serious threat to the United States, as could have been possible. . And so it continues until now, in ways only briefly savored.

That is the world that we have been living in and that we live in right now. Nuclear weapons pose a constant danger of immediate destruction but, in principle at least, we know how to alleviate the threat, including how to eliminate it, an obligation undertaken (and disregarded) by the nuclear powers that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The threat of global warming is not instantaneous, despite its long-term severity that could increase suddenly. That we have the capacity to deal with it is not entirely clear, but there can be no doubt that the longer we delay, the more terrible the disaster will be.

The prospects for decent long-term survival are not very great unless there is a significant change in course. A large part of the responsibility is in our hands, the opportunities as well.

* Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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