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This book is about what it will take to adequately address climate change and nuclear war. In the hierarchy of existential threats, these two are up there.

That’s not to diminish the importance of other existential threats that cause suffering every day to people all over the world: war, violence, racism, abuse, hunger, poverty, inequality, injustice, patriarchy, displacement, human trafficking, modern slavery, oppression of women, voter suppression, attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, child labor, health care disparities, microplastics, toxins, pesticides, herbicides, biodiversity loss, radioactive waste, mass extinctions, pollution, corruption, political inaction, propaganda, polarization, artificial intelligence, cruelty to animals, and the next pandemic.

If you are suffering from these or other threats to your well-being, you probably don’t have the bandwidth to work on climate and nuclear weapons. That’s okay. These threats are all hugely important and they all need to be addressed. Aside from diseases and natural disasters, they’re all made by humans, and they all have roots in social and economic systems created over centuries that benefit certain groups at the expense of others.

We now have obscene levels of inequality, injustice, violence, and environmental degradation, justified by beliefs that one group, gender, race, religion, identity, nation, or species is inherently more deserving of respect, resources, and safety than another. The culture of male chauvinism remains toxic and dangerous. Many men continue to use violence and aggression to get what they want, leading to tyranny and oppression in the home, in the workplace, and among nation-states.  

The culture of systemic racism, particularly in the United States, engenders discrimination, profiling, inequality, mass incarceration, and police killings. Subtle and not-so-subtle racism is eating away at the very heart of the US and threatens the very fabric of democracy.

Meanwhile, levels of poverty, racism, and inequality in the richest country on the planet have reached what Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign calls a “moral emergency.”[1] The top 0.1% of US households now have the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90% of households.[2]

 It will take a gargantuan effort and unprecedented unity to address these problems. It will require a complete overhaul of entrenched systems of injustice and oppression, and that is going to take time.

First, however, humanity itself must survive.

Figure 1.1 “Good Defeats Evil” sculpture outside UN building in New York[3]

A sculpture outside the United Nations, made from melted-down US and Soviet missiles, captures the beautiful ancient concept of “beating swords into plowshares.” We can’t turn literal warheads into literal windmills (radioactive windmills would miss the point). But this book suggests that if we convert resources currently being wasted on nuclear weapons to the green technologies needed to address global warming, that could be part of a winning strategy.

To transition to a fossil-free future, we’ll need money, skills, jobs, technological innovation and infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. As it happens, if we eliminate nuclear weapons, it can release a huge amount of each of those resources, which can then be converted to green solutions. That conversion might not happen fast enough for the immediate steps we still need to take to cut global carbon emissions in half by 2030. But it could make a huge difference in the medium term. By 2050, we’ll need to cut emissions to no more than the earth can absorb.[4] What about the long term? Unfortunately, if we fail to take adequate measures in the short and medium term, it’s unlikely that there will be a long term.

But we can’t do much about the climate while the biggest carbon-emitting countries are pointing nuclear warheads at each other. A transformation in global relationships is absolutely essential to our survival as a species, and a world that cooperates better on issues of climate and nuclear weapons might also be a world that is more able to address all the other existential threats that people face.

The sad reality is that we do not live in such a world right now. Politicians in Washington listen to big, powerful corporations more than to ordinary people. And ordinary people are being brainwashed every day by a steady drip of propaganda and misinformation designed to convince us that these problems are too big to solve – or else that they are already being solved and so we don’t need to worry about them.

But what if it was the corporations rather than the politicians who were facing intense pressure to change their ways? And what if that pressure was coming not just from campaigners in the US, but from all over the world? What if divestment, boycotts, and stigmatization seriously threatened the reputations of these corporations and ultimately their bottom lines?

Already some of the corporations are feeling the pinch as global divestment movements are growing. The Nuclear Ban Treaty already provides a legal framework for divesting and boycotting the nuclear weapons companies in 70 countries around the world. A Fossil Fuel Treaty could create a similar framework for fossil fuel divestment. Coupled with boycotts and other forms of stigmatization, could this kind of pressure on the companies translate into a change of policy in Washington and elsewhere?

No one has the answer to these questions. But we do know this kind of strategy has worked before. In the 1980’s, several major companies got out of the nuclear weapons business following boycotts and divestment campaigns. Dozens of companies pulled out of South Africa following similar efforts.

By pooling our efforts, joining forces, sharing experiences and learning from each other, fossil fuel and nuclear disarmament campaigners worldwide can become a more powerful force for change. We don’t know what will or will not ultimately be effective, but quite frankly, we don’t have a choice. It’s our very survival that’s at stake here.

Nothing we have ever faced in all of human history is as important as what we do now. We urgently need to convert to a fossil-free economy. We need to abolish every nuclear weapon from the face of the earth, forever. We can do this! 

[1] Anderson, S., et al. (2018). The Souls of Poor Folk. Poor People’s Campaign.

[2] Holodny, E. (2016, November 23). The top 0.1% of American households hold the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%. Insider.

[3] Photo: T. Wallis (2018)

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 oC. (p. 12)