When Talking About the Climate Crisis, We Can’t Forget About Nuclear Weapons

When Talking About the Climate Crisis, We Can’t Forget About Nuclear Weapons

When Talking About the Climate Crisis, We Can’t Forget About Nuclear Weapons

Both are existential threats, but only one is getting the attention it deserves.


In the weeks leading up to the October Democratic debate, the climate crisis has finally taken over the political conversation. In mid-September, Greta Thunberg put world leaders on blast at the United Nations General Assembly, eloquently telling them, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” For a discourse that’s been polluted by skepticism, gaslighting, and endless incrementalism, Greta’s speech was a breath of fresh air.

The climate crisis has already received far more attention during this election cycle than any previous. Just 15 minutes over the two nights of the first Democratic debate in June amounted to significantly more attention than the issue received in all of the 2012 and 2016 presidential debates combined. During subsequent debates this year, the climate crisis has received about 25 additional minutes of deliberation, plus a seven-hour, issue-specific town hall where candidates presented their climate plans in detail.

This kind of sustained attention befits a crisis that, in Greta Thunberg’s words, marks “the beginning of a mass extinction.” However, climate change isn’t the only existential threat that humanity faces. In fact, there is a more terrifying and more immediate threat that receives far less attention: nuclear weapons.

In contrast to climate change’s single-issue town hall, nuclear weapons have received a grand total of three measly minutes during all three debates combined, with only two candidates—Senator Elizabeth Warren and Governor Steve Bullock—actually getting the chance to weigh in. Similarly, September’s climate strike was the largest in history, with over 4 million people participating worldwide in over 160 countries; there hasn’t been an antinuclear protest of that scale since the 1980s nuclear freeze movement. The current attention gap between the climate crisis and nuclear weapons is bizarre, given their common existential stakes and challenges.

Climate change and nuclear weapons have a symbiotic relationship: Each threat exacerbates the other. Climate change is setting the stage for conflict between nuclear-armed states, and a recent study suggests that even a regional nuclear war would cool the planet by 2 to 5 degrees Celsius and cause mass starvation for over a decade. Not to mention the fact that even during peacetime, decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have contaminated some of our planet’s ecosystems beyond repair, displacing entire communities—often communities of color—in the process.

The flip side of this symbiosis, however, means that climate change and nuclear weapons also share a common solution.

Progressives recognize that a Green New Deal is a necessary response to the climate crisis because, at its core, it’s a solution commensurate with the scale of the problem. To tackle the issue of nuclear weapons—a similarly entrenched and existential threat—we need a comparable response that eschews incremental nuclear policy tweaks in favor of a sweeping, justice-oriented platform.

As I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last month, a progressive nuclear policy should be based upon four core principles of the Green New Deal—international cooperation, reductions, transparency, and justice. Only by challenging the nuclear-industrial complex in its entirety—in a way akin to how the Green New Deal challenges the carbon economy in its entirety—can a progressive nuclear policy pull us back from the brink of atomic and environmental catastrophe.

Given the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and nuclear weapons, it makes no sense, from either a policy or an activism standpoint, for these two issues to be tackled in silos. Progressive climate change policies should include demilitarization and disarmament provisions, and progressive nuclear policies should address the climate and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Similarly, nuclear activists and climate change activists are natural allies in the fight against existential risk, and both causes would benefit from a more robust partnership.

To that end, the significant attention imbalance between climate change and nuclear weapons must be urgently corrected; keeping them siloed reinforces an incomplete narrative about the nature of these existential threats.

During the next debate on October 15, presidential candidates should be extensively questioned about their nuclear weapons policies. And when answering those questions, candidates should connect their policies to the climate crisis. They should point out that current US nuclear policy is an irreparable environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, and therefore committing to an ambitious platform of reductions is one of the best ways to prevent, as Greta Thunberg accurately calls it, the next “mass extinction.”

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