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World at the Crossroads (Editorial)

Nuclear Threats, Climate Risks, and the Future of Nuclear Disarmament
Jürgen Scheffran

In January 2009, George W. Bush’s second term as President of the United States will come to an end. Where is the world after eight years of his presidency?

  • The Iraq War, justified by false accusations, has cost more than $500 billion in direct costs and may end with total costs of more than $3 trillion. It has taken the lives of more than 4,000 US soldiers, and a much larger number of Iraqis, estimated from between 150,000 and one million people.
  • Preemptive strike doctrines threaten states with nuclear capabilities and ambitions, making nuclear war more likely. US missile defense programs in Eastern Europe provoke harsh reactions from the Russian government, reminiscent of the Cold War. The relationship with China is undermined by US missile defense programs and plans for dominance in space. Both China and the US have tested anti-satellite weapons which could spur an arms race in space.
  • The US threat against so-called “rogue states” has not prevented them from continuing their nuclear programs: North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006 and Iran remains unimpressed by the threat of intervention. Furthermore, the proposed nuclear deal between India and the United States would set a bad precedent for nuclear proliferation.
  • The “War on Terror” has consumed enormous resources and restrained civil liberties but was not able to capture Osama Bin Laden or disintegrate Al Qaeda. Despite some initial sympathies for the United States after 9/11, the reputation of the US in the world has plummeted, even among NATO allies.
  • The US Administration has blocked progress on nuclear disarmament. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has been abrogated and the START disarmament process was abandoned. The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention are at stake. The Outer Space Treaty is disregarded, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not been ratified, and a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty has not been agreed upon. The 2002 Moscow Treaty does not specify a nuclear reduction process and has no verification mechanism.
  • The US has failed to make substantial investments into sustainable energy. Fossil fuel and nuclear energy paths have been promoted, contributing to future vulnerabilities.
  • The US government has prevented major progress on fighting climate change, against the will of the large majority of the world. The additional carbon emissions over the past eight years will have lasting impacts over centuries and may trigger tipping points in the climate system.

Climate change will likely threaten national and international security, as recent studies have analyzed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has addressed serious risks that could undermine the living conditions of people all over the world. The degradation of natural resources, the decline of water and food supply, enforced migration, and more frequent and intense disasters will have severe security impacts. Climate-related shocks will add stress to the world’s existing conflicts and act as a “threat multiplier” in already fragile regions. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC indicates the growing relevance of the security-climate link.

In his recent book The Seventh Decade, Jonathan Schell asks why the threat of nuclear war receives much less public attention today than global warming, although both have a great deal in common: “Both put stakes on the table of a magnitude never present before in human decision making. Both threaten life on a planetary scale. Both require a fully global response. Anyone concerned by the one should be concerned with the other. It would be a shame to save the Earth from slowly warming only to burn it up in an instant in a nuclear war.” Conflicts induced by climate change could create more incentives for nuclear proliferation. A nuclear arms race would waste resources and undermine cooperative solutions of climate change. Nuclear war itself would severely destabilize human societies and the environment, not to speak of the possibility of a nuclear winter.

The nuclear train is rolling towards the precipice, and more countries have joined the train in the past decade. Many more could acquire basic nuclear technology through the nuclear energy renaissance that is expected in response to growing energy needs and the de-carbonization of energy supply. The only way to avoid nuclear disaster is to change the course of the nuclear train towards a nuclear-weapon-free world and make the transition towards a more secure and sustainable future. The world is waiting for the next President of the United States to make this change and move from the lost decade to a future decade of disarmament.

Some of the issues are covered in this volume. Steven Starr assesses the potential climatic consequences of a limited nuclear conflict. Andrew Lichterman highlights the future developments of nuclear weapons in the USA, and Erika Simpson discusses the implication of continued US reliance on NATO and the NPT. The possibly destabilizing link between Iran’s missile program (Bharath Gopalaswami) and the US missile defense in Eastern Europe (Jan Kavan) is analyzed by Jürgen Altmann and Götz Neuneck.

Ways to leave the risky path are suggested in other contributions of the Bulletin. The transformation to a nuclear-weapon-free world through a Nuclear Weapons Convention (Jürgen Scheffran) provides an alternative to a continued nuclear and missile arms race, building on the updated Model NWC presented at the 2007 NPT conference. A technical analysis is given on the verifiability of a Fissile Materials Cut-off (Hui Zhang) and the environmental detection of uranium enrichment (Jens Bösenberg and Martin Kalinowski). Frank von Hippel and Richard Garwin describe their life-long efforts to provide scientific input into the policy decision-making process. Forward-looking policy issues have been presented to the UN General Assembly by Jackie Cabasso and Rhianna Tyson.

Champaign, April 25, 2008