What We Can Do About the Twin Existential Threats
Massachusetts Peace Action
WEBINAR: Sat January 22 @ 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm EST
The webinar will focus on how climate change increases the danger of nuclear war and how a nuclear war would cause further catastrophic climate disruption. This case study of South Asia will show the way the twin existential threats of climate and nuclear risks interact in a way that threatens us all. Solutions such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the Green New Deal that enable us to confront the threats will also be addressed.
A panel of the three experts will discuss some solutions followed by Questions and Answers.
Asha Ashokan will address the growing impact of climate change on the people of South Asia.
Zia Mian will focus on the current dynamic (level of tension) exacerbated by climate change.
Ira Helfand will talk about the medical consequences both locally and globally.
Climate Change and Nuclear War: Existential Threats
Shruti Samala / New Security Beat
(October 26, 2021) — “In international relations today, we face two truly existential threats—in climate change and in nuclear war,” says Robert Litwak, Senior Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies, in a new episode of Wilson NOW. The interview with Litwak focuses on his new article, “Geostrategic Competition and Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable,” recently published in 21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy.
Climate catastrophe and nuclear war are often conceptualized as separate and distinct — as if on a split screen, says Litwak. At this critical juncture — when “the risk of conflict between the United States and its Great Power rivals, China and Russia, is at the highest point since the end of the Cold War”—the two crises must be understood as interconnected.
Curtailing unrestrained geostrategic competition is a precondition for averting the climate crisis, says Litwak. “…if we don’t get a handle on the geostrategic competition, which has its own dire potential consequences if conflict were to break out, we will be nowhere on climate. We will not be able to have the collective action necessary, and we have a narrow window for action on the climate piece. The geostrategic piece has created such virulent relations that it precludes the kind of global cooperation among U.S., Russia, and China that we need to address the climate threat.”
In theory, great powers can compartmentalize climate change from long standing geopolitical pressures in order to jointly curb global carbon emissions, says Litwak. But China and the United States espouse opposing perspectives on climate diplomacy. China views climate change mitigation through a transactional diplomacy lens—that is, international collaboration to decarbonize the economy is not dissevered from traditional geostrategic dynamics but rather a means to simultaneously pursue parochial state goals. In contrast, the U.S. position is that climate change transcends national interests, and should not be brandished as a “geopolitical weapon” or ideological tool, says Litwak.
These conflicting standpoints play out against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and its nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Russia. A “new calculus of risk” has emerged in geopolitics, says Litwak. First, strategic competition is territorial, not ideological, in nature: Superpowers are jockeying for power over border areas of core national interest, namely Taiwan and the South China Sea for China and Ukraine for Russia. Second, the development of advanced technologies and the extension of competition into new domains (cyber and outer space) create new escalatory risks.
“The nuclear states are committed to nuclear modernization with new types of weapons that may affect strategic stability, and create an incentive for one side or the other to go first in a crisis. And up until now, the sine qua non of strategic stability has been essentially mutual vulnerability,” says Litwak. “That calculus may be changing with new capabilities.”
The tensions between the United States and Russia and China are not likely to be eliminated, says Litwak, but must be managed for there to be any possibility of opening lines of dialogue around climate between the two warring factions. Litwak shares key pathways to maintain deterrence: 1) settle territorial disputes that serve as major flashpoints for conflict; 2) revive the arms control architecture of the 1980s and 90s, which stipulated frameworks for nuclear modernization; and 3) engage in international summitry in order to establish “rules of the road, guard rails, basic principles to govern relations” that manage unrestrained geostrategic competition.
At the 1985 Geneva summit, says Litwak, President Ronald Reagan asked Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev if the two nations could put aside their differences and unite together in the event of an alien invasion. Climate change is analogous to this extraterrestrial attack, says Litwak. The fundamental question now is whether unconstrained geostrategic competition will hinder concerted action—or will the superpowers work together to forestall the worst effects of climate ruin?