A Tale of Two Existential Threats: Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

Juliet Nangini
Staff Writer

Climate change and nuclear weapons, two existential threats to humanity, work to exacerbate each other’s detrimental effects. Though the two topics may seem distantly related at first glance, they share many connections. Where climate change is likely to amplify the scarcity of resources, nuclear weapons facilities compound these effects by harming natural resources, increasing the risk of conflict, Accord reports. Moreover, since climate change is a threat multiplier, its negative impacts can lead to the risk of escalation during a conflict between nuclear-armed states.  Therefore, acting on each of these issues can mitigate the threat of both.

Food and water security are among the many issues relevant to both climate change and nuclear weapons. Food and water shortages are consequences of climate change that are further multiplied by nuclear waste, which can contaminate food and water sources. While the effects of nuclear weapons add to those of climate change, the reverse is visible, too. Climate change-driven extreme weather events, varying from floods to wildfires, are already risking damage to nuclear weapons sites. Matt Korda, a research associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, warns of the danger. He informs that “nuclear warheads and their delivery systems are relatively delicate: stored warheads need to be cooled, missile silos need to be kept clean and dry, runways can’t be underwater, and shipyards can’t be flooded,” according to Forbes. A report from the Department of Defense in 2019 highlighted over 70 military facilities, with seven that store up to 6,000 nuclear warheads, that are threatened by climate disasters, Forbes adds.

Evidence of a connection between nuclear sites and climate change can be seen in the case of the Camp Century military base. In the late 1950s to 1960s, the U.S. established Camp Century in Thule, Greenland. Though it supposedly conducted military research, the base was set up for Project Iceworm, a program launched to build a tunnel system of nuclear-armed “Iceman” medium-range ballistic missiles with an easy route to the Soviet Union, according to TIME. According to a case study conducted by Dr. Jeff D. Colgan, an associate professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the missiles would have been in constant movement in the underground railway tracks within the tunnels. This would have rendered it difficult for the Soviets to identify their location and optimize second-strike capability for the U.S. However, Project Iceworm quickly shut down before it became operational, partly due to the slow but present movement of the Greenland Ice Sheet. This ice movement, which was faster than expected, would have shifted the tunnels and ceilings of the facility, disrupting operations. 

Today, more than half a century after the project shut down, climate change is not only unearthing the secret military operation of the Cold War era, but also the toxic waste stored at the site. Dr. Colgan’s case study revealed the release of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as the primary environmental concern along with low-radioactive waste in the region. These pollutants can remobilize, accumulate in marine ecosystems, and rise along the food chain. This issue is also present in similar nuclear sites such as those in the Ulithi atoll in Micronesia where rising sea levels are driven by climate change is increasing the threat of radioactive waste reaching the ocean, Dr. Colgan’s case study adds.

The effects of climate change include melting glaciers, rising sea levels, increased frequency of natural disasters, more droughts and floods, and changes in variations in precipitation patterns, according to NASA. As a threat multiplier, the effects of climate change can lead to increased tensions between nuclear-armed states. One vivid example of this is the conflict is between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, where factors such as the increasing demand for water come into play. India and Pakistan have around 150 and 160 nuclear warheads, respectively, according to Arms Control Association (ACA). In the past, the two countries have engaged in conflicts that neared the use of nuclear weapons. This includes the conflict in 2001 where Pakistan considered a preemptive nuclear attack and the Kargil War of 1999 where former Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad claimed that his country was ready to use “any weapon,” Outrider Foundation says. This was followed by reports that the country had notified its nuclear forces of possible deployment, according to BBC.

Gaining control of Kashmir also extends to the water flowing between India and Pakistan. This has generated tensions between the two countries because they share several major rivers under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. According to UNICEF, “Climate change is disrupting weather patterns, leading to extreme weather events, unpredictable water availability, exacerbating water scarcity and contaminating water supplies.” Coupled with the two countries’ overuse of water and growing populations, water scarcity and water stress—the inability to meet the water demand—are fueling these existing tensions. With more global issues coming into play, particularly the effects of climate change, the risk of escalation remains present between the two nuclear-powered states.

If such a nuclear war does occur between the two states, the resulting nuclear winter would to the negative consequences of climate change, such as the disruption of agriculture. A research study published on Advancing Earth and Space Science uses two atmospheric models to demonstrate how a hypothetical nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan using a 15-kiloton weapon can affect the climate. The findings show that the detonation can set off fires, resulting in smoke that could hinder sunlight. Factors including the weapon’s yield and where the smoke remains could even alter the global climate. If it remains in the upper troposphere, it could move to the stratosphere and potentially destroy stratosphere ozone, resulting in more ultraviolet radiation exposure and a cooler Earth’s surface.

This leads to another important idea common to both climate change and nuclear weapons: they transcend borders and create an impact from any corner of the world. Even if a person or nation has not contributed to either issue, they can still be affected as the effects do not discriminate. Nine countries around the world possess nuclear weapons, with a combined total of almost 13,500 warheads. More than 90 percent are owned by Russia and the U.S., says the ACA. Yet, the effects of a nuclear detonation would impact many more countries than just those nine. Dr. Paul N. Edwards, a fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, tells Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, “medium- and large-scale nuclear conflicts would have severe, and global, climatic effects. Most on all neutral nations and non-combatants would be damaged and would suffer casualties.”

Also common to climate change and nuclear weapons is the fact that they cause disproportionate harm to indigenous groups and communities of color. Such communities face more harmful environmental threats, such as pollution and health concerns including asthma despite inadequate access to resources. The disproportionate effects of climate change can also be seen through the greater frequency of natural disasters due to aid distribution and weak infrastructure. The global rise in temperatures has contributed to more intense storms due to more rain and faster wind speeds, according to the Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI). PSCI also highlights how low-income and minority communities are at risk of experiencing additional effects of natural disasters such as chemical spills due to living closer to toxic waste-producing facilities. Supporting this, a study found that “60 percent of African Americans in Baltimore live within one mile of a Toxic Release Industry, and 70 percent of African Americans live within two to four miles of one,” PSCI reports.

In a similar vein, the disproportionate effects of the nuclear industrial complex on minorities are evident. One 2016 report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found uranium in the urine of babies born to Navajo parents, The World reports. Additionally, a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information says, “the weapons complex also occupies (and contaminates) 36,000 square miles of the U.S., much of its federal sites on public lands in proximity to Indian reservations and other population centers.” This is evident in many nuclear weapons sites, such as the decommissioned Hanford Site initially established as a part of the Manhattan Project for plutonium production. At this site, located on the Columbia River in Washington State, over 50 million gallons of chemically unstable and radioactive contaminated wastewater are stored underground. Over a million gallons have penetrated the Columbia River, the NCBI study reports. This poses a threat to the many tribes like the Nez Perce Tribe that fish in this area, as the harmful contaminants reach humans through fish consumption, resulting in health concerns.

The Seventh Generation Principle is an indigenous value is based on the idea that today’s decisions will impact the next seven generations, according to Woodbine Ecology Center. It is commonly associated with the idea of sustainability and reinforces the importance of considering how our actions impact the future. This reveals one other commonality between climate change and nuclear weapons: the action we take on these tied issues today will impact the coming generations. Therefore, it is vital to address the consequences of climate change and nuclear weapons to protect both the present and the future of the world.

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