The nuclear winter chapter of history began in the late 1970s when a group of scientists, including Carl Sagan, entered the nuclear arms fray.
They weren’t nuclear physicists or weapons experts: they studied the atmospheres of Earth and other planets, including dust storms on Mars and clouds on Venus. Carl Sagan, with former students including Brian Toon, now a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, launched a campaign to warn the world about “nuclear winter.” It was a term that brought together nuclear weapons and world weather.
We have a potent, youth oriented climate crisis movement in the world right now that is vast and determined. Nuclear dangers need to be woven seamlessly into the effort, because they are intricately interconnected. Climate change and nuclear weapons have a symbiotic relationship: Each threat exacerbates the other.
Climate change has a huge role in setting the stage for conflict between nuclear-armed states — Pakistan and India for example — and studies suggest that even a regional nuclear war would cool the planet by two to five degrees Celsius and cause mass starvation for over a decade. Plus, even during peacetime, uranium mining to produce nuclear weapons, nuclear testing and endless nuclear waste dumping and buildup have contaminated some of our ecosystems beyond repair.
The other side of this symbiosis, however, means climate change and nuclear weapons also share a common solution. Many people 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 deep, vast and existential threat in many ways even worse than the climate crisis if that is possible — we need a comparable response that isn’t just incremental nuclear policy changes but a sweeping, justice-oriented solution.
All 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 U.S. 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.”
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 an active, visible partnership.