Today politicians relegate the nuclear threat and environmental challenges to the secondary agenda. This could have grave implications for Russia, the United States and the world. 


It remains to be seen if the U.S. and Russia will be able to alleviate the nuclear threats in a time of confrontation. Photo: Missile Defense Agency / U.S. Department of Defense

Last week the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) launched a new joint report on the future of U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation. It includes 51 recommendations for mutually beneficial cooperation in different fields, including nuclear science, nuclear energy, nuclear safety, nuclear security, and nuclear environmental remediation.

“If implemented, these projects could result in safer nuclear reactors, stronger defenses against nuclear and radiological terrorism, and cleaner approaches to nuclear environmental remediation,” Sam Nunn, the co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Igor Ivanov, the president of the Russian International Affairs Council and Russia’s former Foreign Minister (1998–2004), wrote in the foreword to the report.

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Their recommendations might become even more relevant in 2017, given the fact that numerous nonproliferation endeavors of Russia and the U.S. fell short because of their current confrontation. And with the presidency of Donald Trump, who plans to modernize U.S. nuclear arsenal, the risks are increasing.

Two minutes and 30 seconds until the disaster

About a month ago, on Jan. 25, U.S. atomic scientists released the 2017 Doomsday Clock Bulletin within the project, founded by University of Chicago in 1945. They created the Doomsday Clock to convey the threats to humanity and the entire world. Eventually, it has become a good indicator of the world’s vulnerability to an apocalypse from the possible nuclear arms race, climate change and disruptive technologies in other fields. The authors of the Bulletin moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to a hypothetical disaster: “It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight,” it reads.

The idea to create the Doomsday Clock came shortly after the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when American physicists understood that nuclear weapons could pose the existential threat to the entire humanity. In 1947, Chicago’s scientists set up the Clock at 11:53 p.m., which meant seven minutes left to midnight and the apocalypse.

Since the 1940s, the clock time has been changed more than 20 times. For example, in 1953, after the first testing of thermonuclear bombs, humanity came much closer to the catastrophe, according to atomic scientists: two minutes left until the disaster. Today, the indicators are also alarming — two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. During the Cold War doomsday might happen only in the case of direct confrontation of the U.S. and the Soviet Union — if they would dare to start the warfare through the nuclear exchange.

Amidst the increasing global instability, climate change and environmental problems, is modern civilization really facing an existential threat? Is the world becoming more dangerous and unstable? Or might American atomic scientists just be exaggerating their pessimism?

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Doomsday Clock had 17 minutes left until the apocalypses. It was partly because the U.S. and Russia have closely cooperated since that time and signed the Strategic Arms-Reduction Treaty (START-1). Yet with India and Pakistan testing their nuclear potential, terrorists keeping an eye on nuclear arsenal and Iran and North Korea launching their own nuclear initiatives, doomsday seems to have been brought closer and closer. The last straw became the victory of the flamboyant Trump in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections: He expressed his readiness to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East (to fight terrorists) and denied the threat of global warming.  

Nuclear weapons and non-state actors

Could all these factors lead to disaster? The nuclear apocalypse won’t necessarily mean doomsday for humanity (the civilization might survive, with large-scale panic, epidemics, total collapse of many societies and countries, increasing crime rate becoming routine). Yet if Trump could really dare to use nuclear weapons to deal with local conflicts in the Middle East, it could indeed pose an existential threat to the entire world.       

Historically, America used nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to showcase its potential to its main adversary — the Soviet Union. However, afterwards, some representatives of America’s top brass proposed to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam and North Korea during the Indochina wars (fortunately, they didn't). Today, some militaries might yield to temptation to fight efficiently with Islamic radicals. After all, one nuclear missile could wipe out a distant and inaccessible terrorist base. It could create a chilling effect and undermine the efforts of terrorists psychologically.

Moreover, there is a legal loophole to bypass the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty: Those countries that signed it, cannot use nuclear weapons against any other countries, especially, those that don’t possess nuclear weapons. Yet the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is a non-state actor, which is seen by the global community as a terrorist organization, forbidden in civilized countries.

This means that Washington might showcase its nuclear arsenal to deal with ISIS. Hopefully, Trump won't dare to use nuclear weapons, given the fact that his team includes many professionals, who would not allow this scenario to come true. After all, the U.S. has other less risky and quite efficient options to fight terrorists. Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario should not be ruled out and the world should keep a close eye on it to prevent such a precedent. If a country with a nuclear arsenal uses it to resolve a local military conflict, the implications will be grave.

Downplaying climate change

However, the fact that Trump downplays the impact of climate change might also mean that the Doomsday Clock is a good and reliable indicator for predicting a global catastrophe. Many people underestimate the implications of climate change or other natural disasters — be it melting ice in the Arctic, the large-scale eruption of a volcano elsewhere and the following exposure to volcanic ash.

For example, 200 years ago, in 1816, the eruptions of Indonesia’s volcanoes led to the emission of a large amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere and it had an impact on Europe. This year was labeled as “the year without a summer” or “the poverty year.” It had been the coldest year for 550 years because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperature to drop significantly.

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Naturally, this led to famine with all its unpleasant implications. Today such an incident could be a disaster given the fact that the planet is overcrowded, with its population exceeding 7 billion people. The first casualty could become the third world countries, which don’t have modern technologies and resources to withstand such incidents. Food crises might become common and develop in accordance with the domino effect scenario, leading to a global economic crisis.       

Humanity is currently disintegrating and cannot cope with such natural disasters. Unfortunately, the problem is aggravated by the fact that objective and reliable research on environmental and nuclear risks remains in the shadow of politics. Politicians are reluctant to invest in the long-term environmental and nuculear security projects. And this is not a good sign.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.