The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a strong and active force in campaigning for disarmament and pushing for the adoption of the nuclear weapons ban treaty, 2017.
Despite the best efforts of disarmament organisations like ICAN over the past decade, in the specific case of the ban treaty, the purpose of adopting the treaty itself was belittled as none of the States possessing nuclear weapons (NWS) attended the negotiations, let alone sign or ratify it. This begs the question, why has bringing states possessing nuclear weapons on board for negotiations towards nuclear disarmament proven so difficult?
The so-called indifference of nuclear-armed states to disarmament efforts must be seen in the context of evolving security dynamics, which are accompanied by three challenges: fear of the threat of regime change in ‘rogue states’, security dilemmas that result from a trust deficit among the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), and ineffective non-proliferation regimes.
Fear of Threat of Regime Change
A theme that dominates West-dominated global nuclear conversations is pushing ‘rogue’ states to disarm. An example is North Korea, whose actions are offered as a justification for the lack of traction with disarmament initiatives. North Korean nuclear weaponisation has made the very notion of complete disarmament irrelevant for discussion.
However, North Korea’s nuclear advances cannot be wished away. Its actions are guided by a lack of trust with the international community, and the fear that if it gives up its nuclear weapons, the country will be open to external attempts at regime change.
The Pentagon occupies 6,000 bases in the US and more than 1,000 bases (the exact number is disputed) in 60-plus foreign countries. According to its FY 2010 Base Structure Report, the Pentagon's global empire includes more than 539,000 facilities at 5,000 sites covering more than 28 million acres.
The Pentagon has admitted to burning 350,000 barrels of oil a day (only 35 countries in the world consume more) but that doesn't include oil burned by contractors and weapons suppliers. It does, however, include providing fuel for more than 28,000 armored vehicles, thousands of helicopters, hundreds of jet fighters and bombers and vast fleets of Navy vessels. The Air Force accounts for about half of the Pentagon’s operational energy consumption, followed by the Navy (33%) and Army (15%). In 2012, oil accounted for nearly 80% of the Pentagon's energy consumption, followed by electricity, natural gas and coal.
Ironically, most of the Pentagon's oil is consumed in operations directed at protecting America's access to foreign oil and maritime shipping lanes. In short, the consumption of oil relies on consuming more oil. This is not a sustainable energy model.
The amount of oil burned - and the burden of smoke released - increases whenever the Pentagon goes to war. (Indeed, human history's most combustible mix may well prove to be oil and testosterone.) Oil Change International estimates the Pentagon's 2003-2007 $2 trillion Iraq War generated more than three million metric tons of CO2 pollution per month.
How is the US military seeking to address climate change and what are its implications for environmental and social justice?
For anyone concerned with militarism, news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels brought a familiar sense of dread. We ached as we hear the stories of more innocent lives lost, and we felt foreboding from the knowledge that the bombings will predictably fuel new cycles of violence and horror in targeted communities at home or abroad. It creates the binary world that neocons and terrorists seek: an era of permanent war in which all our attention and resources are absorbed – and the real crises of poverty, inequality, unemployment, social alienation and climate crisis ignored.
It was unusual, therefore, in March 2016 to hear President Obama in an interview with the Atlantic magazine, repeat his warning that “Isis is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” While predictably ridiculed by the reactionary US Right, it seems to epitomise Obama’s seemingly more strategic approach on foreign policy – the so-called ‘Obama doctrine’ that seeks to entrench imperial power by firstly, in his own words, “not doing stupid shit” and secondly not ignoring the long-term challenges to US interests.
President Obama’s emphasis on climate change has been a feature of his foreign policy priorities during his final term in office. While initially couched in lofty rhetoric of ‘healing’ the planet, Obama has more consistently framed climate change in terms of ensuring US national security. Addressing coastguard cadets in Connecticut in May 2015, Obama argued: “Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act— and we need to act now.” In doing so, Obama has set a tendency that has been picked up by US allies worldwide. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron has also said that climate change is “not just a threat to the environment. It is also a threat to our national security”.
The acceptance that legal protection for the environment from the ravages of armed conflict needs improvement has a long history. During the last three decades, initiatives have repeatedly flowered, only to wither and die in seminars and conference rooms, while wartime environmental damage continues largely unchecked. What lessons should a new generation wishing to tackle the topic take from past failures?
As we reported earlier, Ukraine needs to find $30m to cover the cost of a two year programme of urgent environmental assistance, doubtless millions more will be needed beyond that. Damage to Ukraine’s natural environment and direct and urgent threats to public and environmental health thanks to damage to industrial sites are widespread. In Iraq and Syria, protracted conflicts are continuing to create new environmental threats and exacerbate pre-existing problems. Environmental damage from conflict is not just of historical or academic interest, it is threatening civilians and livelihoods around the world. How then to recapture a sense of urgency in efforts to minimize damage and ensure that environmental assistance gets to where it’s needed?
It is sheer coincidence that Paris was struck by terrorists on the eve of a key climate conference known as COP 21.
To some, the attacks may appear like an unfortunate distraction in the face of efforts to meet a civilizational challenge like no other. Yet there are important cross-connections between security and climate concerns.
Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict. We live, after all, in a world marked by profound disparities in wealth, social and demographic pressures, unresolved grievances, and a seemingly endless supply of arms of all calibers. Far from being a separate concern, climate change is certain to intensify many existing challenges. More frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms will likely play havoc with harvests and compromise food security. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and spreading disease vectors could undermine the economic viability and long-term habitability of some areas. The result could be escalating social discontent, mass displacement, and worse.
In fact, such scenarios are no longer mere conjecture. Consider Syria.