No one can predict the future and the title of this piece is incendiary. Nevertheless, I believe it is true: Humans are facing a one-two punch, from environmental devastation and nuclear holocaust. As environmental conditions worsen, nations are likely to turn inward and lash outward, causing increased conflict and wars that will likely end in the unthinkable: nuclear weapons being used for the first time since World War II.
The environmental dimensions go beyond climate change, although that is frightening enough. Over the past 150 years, planetary temperatures have gone up some 1.1° C, or 2° F. Many regions around the world have already seen an increase in violent storms, sea-level rise and drought. If all signatories to the Paris Agreement meet their commitments, temperature increase is expected to reach 2.6 to 3.1° C, double to triple what we have seen so far. What we’ve experienced is only the beginning.
Aware of this shortcoming, the signatories of the Paris Agreement have called for a new meeting every five years to intensify commitments. Once momentum gathers, a virtuous cycle — it is hoped — will lead to stronger resolve, saving humanity from the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is acting aggressively to undo this final hope, undermining the Environmental Protection Agency charged with enforcing our climate commitment. If the United States — historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and still the standard for much of the world — pulls out, other countries are unlikely to meet their current pledges, let alone strengthen them.
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Yet climate change is not the only environmental threat we face. Ocean acidification due to carbon emissions (also a contributing cause of climate change) threatens crustaceans and will likely devastate coral reefs, unravelling basic biological functions. Changing the chemistry and biology of the oceans destabilizes complex systems worldwide that scientists do not fully understand. Notably, phytoplankton are responsible for producing around half of the oxygen that we breathe. Who knows what multitude of cascading effects will occur if we dramatically alter our oceans, the birth site of life on Earth?
There is more. Johan Rockström has led a team of scientists in defining nine environmental boundaries that threaten humanity and, according to their calculations, we have crossed three of them and are on the verge of transcending more. Biological diversity may be the most dangerous — we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, a massive wipeout of species planet-wide. The last time this happened was 65 million years ago, when an asteroid ended the age of dinosaurs and started the age of mammals, which led to the existence of humans. In this case, it is not some accident from outer-space that threatens massive destruction of ecosystems, but us. We are our own worst enemy.
That is the environmental piece of the picture. Nevertheless, I believe that we humans well enough understand the dangers and how to cope with them to modify our current trajectory, should we gain the political will. Indeed, we have done so in the past — for instance, in reversing ozone depletion, although this was a far easier task. Nevertheless, real progress has been made on climate change through making renewable energy competitive and through the Paris Agreement. Yet this is only a beginning, and the Trump administration puts at risk even these gains. We need, instead, to redouble future efforts to cut down wasteful consumption and achieve sustainable societies. However, we are far from doing so.
While the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, other developments around the globe threaten to undermine democracy and spread conflict. In the mainstream media, the most visible is terrorism. Yet the growing influence of authoritarian regimes may be the bigger danger. Most notable are Russia and China, which rely on a combination of political and military tensions to legitimate their regimes. Russian intervention in the Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere is leading to a replay of the Cold War during a period in which we absolutely must cooperate. China, meanwhile, exacerbates anxieties with its neighbors — for instance, over islands in the South China Sea, while its “ally” North Korea recklessly plays with nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the Middle East has been destabilized. Muslim refugees flood into Europe, accompanied by just enough terrorism to inflame the divisive rhetoric of white nationalists. Following the Nazi cataclysm in the early 20th century, and the noble sacrifices of such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the latter part of that bloody century, we should know better. We should have learned that we are one species on one world and that we are at our best when we combine efforts. But we have not done so — or at least too many of us have not.
The human species has a brutal, bullying, tribalist, nationalist side, one that seems to have been reawakened. As the world grows hotter and nastier, the worry is that, instead of striving to live together, we will divide into ever-more-hostile groups fighting each other ever-more ruthlessly. This has happened in Syria, where a drought likely exacerbated by climate change pushed an already fragile society into chaos, leading to unrestrained migration. Countries such as the United States, with its nearly 250-year history of democracy, its affluence and its highly functioning institutions, would seem far more resilient, able to respond to environmental disruption. Yet our political system is broken, with divisions as deep as any since at least the 1960s, and perhaps since the Civil War.
The world is falling apart just when it needs to be uniting to face environmental catastrophe. We might be able to join forces to face a devastating flood here, a drought there, yet as these conditions multiply, the likelier course seems one of division and increasing violence. With nuclear weapons in such unstable hands as North Korea, Pakistan,Russia and the US under Trump, the likelihood of their use in desperate circumstance goes up. Meanwhile, efforts to stop nuclear proliferation by the United States and Russia are disintegrating. With enough nuclear weapons in enough hands, and with increasing conflict augmented by climate change, the unthinkable will eventually happen.
Once nuclear weapons go off, even in small quantities — say, from North Korea or in an exchange between India and Pakistan — they will exacerbate existing environmental problems through radioactive fallout and firestorms. The threat of nuclear winter may actually cool the Earth, but with the multiple changes to our atmosphere we will never be the same planet. And small-scale nuclear war may make the unthinkable more likely to happen again, on a larger cycle, particularly on an already destabilized planet riven by suffering and conflict.
It is conceivable that the cycle of escalating destructive events will lead to a new realization that we humans must cooperate to survive. Yet our current history does not seem to bear this out. We instead scapegoat others — Muslims, Latinos, Jews, whomever we can use to avoid taking responsibility. This scapegoating is likely to get only worse, hiding the true nature of our problems and intensifying conflict.
Climate change and nuclear war are each scary enough by themselves, but in conjunction, they are even more calamitous. The time to stop them is now. The crescendo of progressive organizing in reaction to the Trump presidency provides some hope. Yet it must be only a beginning. We must march together toward a deeply democratic, socially just, environmentally sustainable world, or we will all fall together.