A Climate for Nuclear Change

Momentum is growing to ban nuclear weapons, the greatest threat facing the world, for good

There are two major threats to our safety as a species, and the wellbeing of all other living things on the planet. The first danger is climate change. The second is less spoken of in the news: nuclear weapons. The Dalai Lama has said, "By far the single greatest danger facing humankind - in fact, all living beings on our planet - is the threat of nuclear destruction." Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, also agrees "the attention focused on nuclear weapons should be as prominent as that of global climate change." Next month, the world is getting together in New York to find a way to abolish nukes for good, with Australia playing a key role.

A few might have thought nuclear weapons were so Cold War. When the Berlin Wall came down, some countries, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, joined a few years later by South Africa, unilaterally renounced nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia reduced their weapons from something like 50,000 nuclear weapons to half that. Right now, the United States has about 10,000, and the Russians, around 15,000 nuclear missiles. So why the worry?

It's a good start, but nuclear weapons are not just ordinary weapons. Authorities guess (they don't know for sure) that there are about 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Every one is one too many. A single nuclear weapon has more destructive power than all the weapons used in all the wars throughout human history.

Blink. A city is incinerated. Your shadow is left on a wall. There is little hope for survivors. Blink. Blink. Blink. Hundreds of cities erased. There is no infrastructure left for anyone. Just radioactive rubble, and nuclear winter: a shadow over half the globe for more than a year, of irradiated dust, floating in the upper atmosphere, without growing seasons, with plant life dying and all life that depends on the food chain starving. All started and finished in a chain reaction of atoms colliding into atoms, started by nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert. A war started by accident? Fought with malice and intention? Either is madness. A single Trident submarine, from Britain, can launch 220 missiles on 220 cities. Gone.

Following a campaign that began in New Zealand and was supported by people from all over the world, in 1996 the World Court advised the United Nations that the first use of nuclear weapons would be genocidal and a crime against humanity. Since then, the United Nations resolves each year that all countries should meet their disarmament obligation. When you look at how indiscriminate and cruel the weapons are, one is drawn to agree with essayist Arundhati Roy, "The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made...This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon."

Change can come quickly. The Partial Test Ban Treaty prohibiting above ground nuclear test explosions (spewing strontium 90 into the atmosphere) was concluded in just 10 days of determined negotiations. But change has been slow much of the time.

When there were just five countries with nuclear weapons, the nuclear states grudgingly agreed to eventually abolish their own nuclear weapons, while the rest of the world agreed not to make nuclear weapons for themselves. But the nuclear powers signing this Non-Proliferation Treaty have not honoured its prime objective. The Nuclear Five (China, Britain, France, Russia and United States) have shown no interest, until very recently, in disarming or talking about disarming. Only President Obama's declaration in April 2009 in Prague gave the world hope. Yet then it seemed he was massively adding to nuclear weapons research.

The news is that Obama is considering staying with the US retaining its option to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes (contrary to the World Court ruling). If so, that makes Pine Gap a liability for Australia, should the United States ever rely on the Alice Springs base to aim and fire a first-use nuclear weapon: we would be complicit in a crime against humanity. This month, the Nuclear Posture Review will be launched and tell us a lot more about America's intentions.

And time is running out. Israel has between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons. North Korea has 1-10 nuclear weapons. In the early 1990s, Pakistan and India came closer to nuclear war than even the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us for they each have around 50 nuclear weapons. And plutonium to make weapons has gone missing from Russia.

Every country that has nuclear power plants is within cooee of making nuclear weapons. It has been calculated that with its nuclear plants, Japan could take six weeks to produce its own nuclear weapon, if it ever chose to. (In 1970, Australia announced a nuclear power plant at Jervis Bay - Cabinet papers now reveal our plan was to use this plant to build five nuclear weapons per year.)

You would think that a weapon that can turn your city into 7,000 degrees Celsius in an instant would be reviled universally, as a weapon of terror. Hans Blix, who investigated whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, (he said there weren't, and he was right) is an active advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons. "So long as any state has such weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain in any state's arsenal, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. Any such use would be catastrophic."

The world has already started to move against these indiscriminate weapons of terror. The Mayors for Peace movement is worldwide, as they campaign with the chilling motto and demand, "Cities Are Not Targets!" (Why not get your mayor to sign up?) The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom has resourced "Reaching Critical Will" to inform people about the possibilities for peace without nukes. ICAN - the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons - has the support of Nobel laureates and people from all sides of the political spectrum. At least 127 countries were for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, with only 27 against. Change is possible.

An influential international report last December, co-chaired by Australian Gareth Evans, built on the opening created by his 1996 Canberra Commission. The status quo is not an option. The report's raft of recommendations does much of the work needed for a successful May conference.

A Nuclear Weapons Convention would do the following sensible things, to take us back from five minutes to midnight:nuclear weapons would be taken off hair trigger alert (In the 1990s, the Russians almost launched a nuclear attack on the United States when a flock of birds was mistaken for an American attack)nuclear weapons would be taken from where they are deployednuclear warheads would be taken from their delivery vehicles and disabledfissile materials would be put under United Nations control

A year ago this month, President Obama, Nobel Peace prize winner, stood in Prague and said to the throng in Hradcany Square:

"Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as a nuclear power - as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavour alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Do what you can to support Australia's progressive stand in New York next month. Let people know that we can actually ban hydrogen and atom bombs, just as the world has already banned biological and chemical weapons, and outlawed landmines and dum-dum bullets. Yes we can.