Climate change and nuclear weapons

Guy Quinlan, NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security
Nuclear weaponry and global climate change, two of the planet!s most dangerous
threats to humanity, are deeply intertwined. Massive nuclear weapons budgets
consume resources that are badly needed to address the climate crisis. And
even a “modest” deployment of such weapons could sharply worsen climate
change risks, triggering a decline in the world food supply of such magnitude that
it would likely overwhelm any after-the-fact response.
An international scientific study submitted in July 2014 to the UN Sustainable
Development Solutions Network
calls for major investments to research and
develop low-carbon technologies, cautioning that efforts to avoid climate
catastrophe will require nothing less than “a profound transformation of energy
systems by mid-century.”
It is not clear, however, how resources for such an effort will be found, since the
world!s atomic weapons states have launched highly expensive modernization
programs. Despite treaty obligations to negotiate an end to the nuclear arms race
“at an early date” and to negotiate nuclear disarmament
, the world!s nuclear
powers are instead enhancing their nuclear arsenals in an effort to extend them
to 2050 and beyond.
The United States, for example, plans to spend $345 billion to upgrade its
nuclear arsenal over the next decade, and an estimated $1 trillion over the next
30 years
. According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office
even these figures may seriously underestimate reality.

The Russian Federation plans to replace all of its Soviet-era nuclear delivery
systems. Modernization plans for both the U.S. and Russia include upgraded
intercontinental ballistic missiles, new stealth bombers, new nuclear-capable
fighter-bombers, enhanced nuclear submarine fleets, and new nuclear cruise

China is upgrading its land-based missiles and expanding its submarine-based
nuclear deterrent, while France plans to enhance its submarine-launched
missiles and replace some of its nuclear capable fighter-bombers with newer
If even a fraction of these planned expenditures were devoted to
curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the chances of averting climate disaster
would be immensely improved.

The implications of climate change for global peace and security have so far
received little public attention, but military and intelligence experts are acutely
aware of the dangers involved. The National Research Council recently released
a report
, commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, concluding that “the
Earth!s climate is changing at a rate that is unprecedented, at least throughout
human history” and that “we know beyond reasonable doubt that the
consequences will be extensive.”

The report warns that likely scenarios of “sea level rise, the shrinking of glaciers
and the Arctic ice cap, an increase in extreme weather events, and increasingly
intense droughts, floods and heat waves,” along with resulting food and water
insecurity and disruption of vital supply chains, threaten to cause disruptive
migrations of populations, humanitarian disasters beyond the ability of national
governments to cope, destabilization of fragile governments, and severe conflicts
over increasingly scarce resources.

These dangers are greatly exacerbated by the continuing presence of nuclear
weapons. One of the threatened areas identified by the NRC report is the Indian
subcontinent, which is also the site of the world!s most intense nuclear arms
race—India and Pakistan, embroiled in several armed conflicts over the years,
are both expanding the size and lethality of their nuclear arsenals.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies recently warned
that “the continuing expansion of Pakistan!s and India!s nuclear capabilities
[creates] ever greater concern about an intensifying nuclear arms race in South

Both countries are pursuing precision-strike tactical nuclear missiles, a
development that increases the risk of dangerous miscalculations,
according to
the U.S. National Intelligence director!s office. Recent scientific studies have
found that the climate effects of even a limited nuclear exchange between India
and Pakistan could drastically disrupt global agriculture, putting two billion people
at risk of famine.

These twin existential threats to humanity—nuclear weaponry and climate
change—must be addressed in concert, through serious action on nuclear
disarmament and by shifting any freed resources to the task of keeping the
planet habitable.
Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, The interim report, produced by expert teams from 15 countries, will
be further expanded and a final report submitted in 2015 to the French government as the host of
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Article VI.
Hans Kristensen, Nuclear Weapon Modernization: a Threat to the NPT?, Arms Control Today, May 2014.
Tom Z. Collina, Nuclear Costs Undercounted, GAO Says, Arms Control Association website.
Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, Slowing Nuclear Weapons Reductions and Endless Nuclear
Weapon Modernization: a Challenge to the NPT, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists online edition, 20 June
National Research Council (2013) Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.
India, Pakistan Tactical Arms Race is Very Risky, New Report Says, National Journal, Global Security
Newswire, September 12, 2013.
South Asian Tactical Missiles Risk Dangerous Miscalculations, U.S. Intel Officer Says. National Journal,
Global Security Newswire, June 6, 2013.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility,
Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk;
Mills, M.J., O.B. Toon, J. Lee-Taylor, and A. Robock, Multidecadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone
loss following a regional nuclear conflict (2014), Earth's Future, 2, 161-176.