Real Leaders

How Rising Temperatures Increase the Likelihood of Nuclear War

As climate changes stresses our human institutions, we are likely to face deadly conflicts over critical resources.

President Donald Trump may not accept the scientific reality of climate change, but the nation’s senior military leaders recognize that climate disruption is already underway, and they are planning extraordinary measures to prevent it from spiraling into nuclear war. One particularly worrisome scenario is if extreme drought and abnormal monsoon rains devastate agriculture and unleash social chaos in Pakistan, potentially creating an opening for radical Islamists aligned with elements of the armed forces to seize some of the country’s 150 or so nuclear weapons. To avert such a potentially cataclysmic development, the US Joint Special Operations Command has conducted exercises for infiltrating Pakistan and locating the country’s nuclear munitions. Most of the necessary equipment for such raids is already in position at US bases in the region, according to a 2011 report from the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “It’s safe to assume that planning for the worst-case scenario regarding Pakistan’s nukes has already taken place inside the US government,” said Roger Cressey, a former deputy director for counterterrorism in Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations in 2011.

Such an attack by the United States would be an act of war and would entail enormous risks of escalation, especially since the Pakistani military—the country’s most powerful institution—views the nation’s nuclear arsenal as its most prized possession and would fiercely resist any US attempt to disable it. “These are assets which are the pride of Pakistan, assets which are…guarded by a corps of 18,000 soldiers,” former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told NBC News in 2011. The Pakistani military “is not an army which doesn’t know how to fight. This is an army that has fought three wars. Please understand that.”

A potential US military incursion in nuclear-armed Pakistan is just one example of a crucial but little-​discussed aspect of international politics in the early 21st century: how the acceleration of climate change and nuclear war planning may make those threats to human survival harder to defuse. At present, the intersections between climate change and nuclear war might not seem obvious. But powerful forces are pushing both threats toward their most destructive outcomes.

In the case of climate change, the unbridled emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is raising global temperatures to unmistakably dangerous levels. Despite growing worldwide reliance on wind and solar power for energy generation, the global demand for oil and natural gas continues to rise, and carbon emissions are projected to remain on an upward trajectory for the foreseeable future. It is highly unlikely, then, that the increase in average global temperature can be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the aspirational goal adopted by the world’s governments under the Paris Agreement in 2015, or even to 2°C, the actual goal. After that threshold is crossed, scientists agree, it will prove almost impossible to avert catastrophic outcomes, such as the collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and a resulting sea level rise of 6 feet or more.

Climbing world temperatures and rising sea levels will diminish the supply of food and water in many resource-deprived areas, increasing the risk of widespread starvation, social unrest, and human flight. Global corn production, for example, is projected to fall by as much as 14 percent in a 2°C warmer world, according to research cited in a 2018 special report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Food scarcity and crop failures risk pushing hundreds of millions of people into overcrowded cities, where the likelihood of pandemics, ethnic strife, and severe storm damage is bound to increase. All of this will impose an immense burden on human institutions. Some states may collapse or break up into a collection of warring chiefdoms—all fighting over sources of water and other vital resources.

A similar momentum is now evident in the emerging nuclear arms race, with all three major powers—China, Russia, and the United States—rushing to deploy a host of new munitions. This dangerous process commenced a decade ago, when Russian and Chinese leaders sought improvements to their nuclear arsenals and President Barack Obama, in order to secure Senate approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2010, agreed to initial funding for the modernization of all three legs of America’s strategic triad, which encompasses submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and bombers. (New START, which mandated significant reductions in US and Russian arsenals, will expire in February 2021 unless renewed by the two countries.) Although Obama initiated the modernization of the nuclear triad, the Trump administration has sought funds to proceed with their full-scale production, at an estimated initial installment of $500 billion over 10 years.

Even during the initial modernization program of the Obama era, Russian and Chinese leaders were sufficiently alarmed to hasten their own nuclear acquisitions. Both countries were already in the process of modernizing their stockpiles—Russia to replace Cold War–era systems that had become unreliable, China to provide its relatively small arsenal with enhanced capabilities. Trump’s decision to acquire a whole new suite of ICBMs, nuclear-armed submarines, and bombers has added momentum to these efforts. And with all three major powers upgrading their arsenals, the other nuclear-weapon states—led by India, Pakistan, and North Korea—have been expanding their stockpiles as well. Moreover, with Trump’s recent decision to  abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, all major powers are developing missile delivery systems for a regional nuclear war such as might erupt in Europe, South Asia, or the western Pacific.

All things being equal, rising temperatures will increase the likelihood of nuclear war, largely because climate change will heighten the risk of social stress, the decay of nation-states, and armed violence in general, as I argue in my new book, All Hell Breaking Loose. As food and water supplies dwindle and governments come under ever-increasing pressure to meet the vital needs of their populations, disputes over critical resources are likely to become more heated and violent, whether the parties involved have nuclear arms or not. But this danger is compounded by the possibility that several nuclear-armed powers—notably India, Pakistan, and China—will break apart as a result of climate change and accompanying battles over disputed supplies of water.

Together, these three countries are projected by the UN Population Division to number approximately 3.4 billion people in 2050, or 34 percent of the world’s population. Yet they possess a much smaller share of the world’s freshwater supplies, and climate change is destined to reduce what they have even further. Warmer temperatures are also expected to diminish crop yields in these countries, adding to the desperation of farmers and very likely resulting in widespread ethnic strife and population displacement. Under these circumstances, climate-related internal turmoil would increase the risk of nuclear war in two ways: by enabling the capture of nuclear arms by rogue elements of the military and their possible use against perceived enemies and by inciting wars between these states over vital supplies of water and other critical resources.

The risk to Pakistan from climate change is thought to be particularly acute. A large part of the population is still engaged in agriculture, and much of the best land—along with access to water—is controlled by wealthy landowners (who also dominate national politics). Water scarcity and mismanagement is a perennial challenge, and climate change is bound to make the problem worse. Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis, a 2013 report by the National Research Council for the US intelligence community, highlights the danger of chaos and conflict in that country as global warming advances. Pakistan, the report notes, is expected to suffer from inadequate water supplies during the dry season and severe flooding during the monsoon—outcomes that will devastate its agriculture and amplify the poverty and unrest already afflicting much of the country. “The Pakistan case,” the report reads, “illustrates how a highly stressed environmental system on which a tense society depends can be a source of political instability and how that source can intensify when climate events put increased stress on the system.” Thus, as global temperatures rise and agriculture declines, Pakistan could shatter along ethnic, class, and religious lines, precisely the scenario that might trigger the sort of intervention anticipated by the US Joint Special Operations Command.

Assuming that Pakistan remains intact, another great danger arising from increasing world temperatures is a conflict between it and India or between China and India over access to shared river systems. Whatever their differences, Pakistan and western India are forced by geography to share a single river system, the Indus, for much of their water requirements. Likewise, western China and eastern India also share a river, the Brahmaputra, for their vital water needs. The Indus and the Brahmaputra obtain much of their flow from periods of heavy precipitation; they also depend on meltwater from Himalayan glaciers, and these are at risk of melting because of rising temperatures. According to the IPCC, the Himalayan glaciers could lose as much as 29 percent of their total mass by 2035 and 78 percent by 2100. This would produce periodic flooding as the ice melts but would eventually result in long periods of negligible flow, with calamitous consequences for downstream agriculture. The widespread starvation and chaos that could result would prove daunting to all the governments involved and make any water-related disputes between them a potential flash point for escalation.

As in Pakistan, water supply has always played a pivotal role in the social and economic life of China and India, with both countries highly dependent on a few major river systems for civic and agricultural purposes. Excessive rainfall can lead to catastrophic flooding, and prolonged drought has often led to widespread famine and mass starvation. In such a setting, water management has always been a prime responsibility of government—and a failure to fulfill this function effectively has often resulted in civil unrest. Climate change is bound to increase this danger by causing prolonged water shortages interspersed with severe flooding. This has prompted leaders of both countries to build ever more dams on all key rivers.

India, as the upstream power on several tributaries of the Indus, and China, as the upstream power on the Brahmaputra, have considered damming these rivers and diverting their waters for exclusive national use, thereby diminishing the flow to downstream users. Three of the Indus’s principal tributaries, the Jhelum, Chenab, and Ravi rivers, flow through Indian-controlled Kashmir (now in total lockdown, with government forces suppressing all public functions). It’s possible that India seeks full control of Kashmir in order to dam the tributaries there and divert their waters from Pakistan—a move that could easily trigger a war if it occurs at a time of severe food and water stress and one that would very likely invite the use of nuclear weapons, given Pakistan’s attitude toward them.

The situation regarding the Brahmaputra could prove equally precarious. China has already installed one dam on the river, the Zangmu Dam in Tibet, and has announced plans for several more. Some Chinese hydrologists have proposed the construction of canals linking the Brahmaputra to more northerly rivers in China, allowing the diversion of its waters to drought-stricken areas of the heavily populated northeast. These plans have yet to come to fruition, but as global warming increases water scarcity across northern China, Beijing might proceed with the idea. “If China was determined to move forward with such a scheme,” the US National Intelligence Council warned in 2009, “it could become a major element in pushing China and India towards an adversarial rather than simply a competitive relationship.”

Severe water scarcity in northern China could prompt yet another move with nuclear implications: an attempted annexation by China of largely uninhabited but water-rich areas of Russian Siberia. Thousands of Chinese farmers and merchants have already taken up residence in eastern Siberia, and some commentators have spoken of a time when climate change prompts a formal Chinese takeover of those areas—which would almost certainly prompt fierce Russian resistance and the possible use of nuclear weapons.

In the Arctic, global warming is producing a wholly different sort of peril: geopolitical competition and conflict made possible by the melting of the polar ice cap. Before long, the Arctic ice cap is expected to disappear in summertime and to shrink noticeably in the winter, making the region more attractive for resource extraction. According to the US Geological Survey, an estimated 30 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered natural gas is above the Arctic Circle; vast reserves of iron ore, uranium, and rare earth minerals are also thought to be buried there. These resources, along with the appeal of faster commercial shipping routes linking Europe and Asia, have induced all the major powers, including China, to establish or expand operations in the region. Russia has rehabilitated numerous Arctic bases abandoned after the Cold War and built others; the United States has done likewise, modernizing its radar installation at Thule in Greenland, reoccupying an airfield at Keflavík in Iceland, and establishing bases in northern Norway.

Increased economic and military competition in the Arctic has significant nuclear implications, as numerous weapons are deployed there and geography lends it a key role in many nuclear scenarios. Most of Russia’s missile-carrying submarines are based near Murmansk, on the Barents Sea (an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean), and many of its nuclear-armed bombers are also at bases in the region to take advantage of the short polar route to North America. As a counterweight, the Pentagon has deployed additional subs and antisubmarine aircraft near the Barents Sea and interceptor aircraft in Alaska, followed by further measures by Moscow. “I do not want to stoke any fears here,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in June 2017, “but experts are aware that US nuclear submarines remain on duty in northern Norway…. We must protect [Russia’s] shore accordingly.”

On the other side of the equation, an intensifying arms race will block progress against climate change by siphoning resources needed for a global energy transition and by poisoning the relations among the great powers, impeding joint efforts to slow the warming.

With the signing of the Paris Agreement, it appeared that the great powers might unite in a global effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to avoid catastrophe, but those hopes have since receded. At the time, Obama emphasized that limiting global warming would require nations to work together in an environment of trust and peaceful cooperation. Instead of leading the global transition to a postcarbon energy system, however, the major powers are spending massively to enhance their military capabilities and engaging in conflict-provoking behaviors.

Since fiscal year 2016, the annual budget of the US Department of Defense has risen from $580 billion to $738 billion in fiscal year 2020. When the budget increases for each fiscal year since 2016 are combined, the United States will have spent an additional $380 billion on military programs by the end of this fiscal year—more than enough to jump-start the transition to a carbon-​free economy. If the Pentagon budget rises as planned to $747 billion in fiscal year 2024, a total of $989 billion in additional spending will have been devoted to military operations and procurement over this period, leaving precious little money for a Green New Deal or any other scheme for systemic decarbonization.

Meanwhile, policy-makers in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow increasingly regard one another as implacable and dangerous adversaries. “As China and Russia seek to expand their global influence,” then–Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed Congress in a January 2019 report, “they are eroding once well-established security norms and increasing the risk of regional conflicts.” Chinese and Russian officials have been making similar statements about the United States. Secondary powers like India, Pakistan, and Turkey are also assuming increasingly militaristic postures, facilitating the potential spread of nuclear weapons and exacerbating regional tensions. In this environment, it is almost impossible to imagine future climate negotiations at which the great powers agree on concrete measures for a rapid transition to a clean energy economy.

In a world constantly poised for nuclear war while facing widespread state decay from climate disruption, these twin threats would intermingle and intensify each other. Climate-​related resource stresses and disputes would increase the level of global discord and the risk of nuclear escalation; the nuclear arms race would poison relations between states and make a global energy transition impossible.

But such an outcome is not inevitable. Mass movements have emerged to close coal plants, halt fracking, block the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, and divest from fossil fuel companies. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, with her School Strike 4 Climate campaign, has inspired millions of young people around the world to engage in climate activism. On the nuclear side, groups like Global Zero and Back From the Brink are campaigning for a global no-first-use policy by the nuclear-armed states; in Congress, progressive Democrats fought to deny funds for the procurement of new missiles that would have violated the terms of the INF Treaty.

What is essential and still largely missing is a recognition that climate and peace activism must be linked if the twin perils of global warming and nuclear war are to be overcome. People must understand that it will be very difficult to slow global warming unless the nuclear arms race is also slowed—and, likewise, that the risk of nuclear war will grow as long as nuclear-armed states are threatened by climate disruptions. Only by uniting our efforts toward climate and nuclear sanity in a joint campaign for human survival will it be possible to triumph over these destructive forces.

This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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