Introduction and executive summary

This is an extract from our report “Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment”.

Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland has been campaigning for Scottish organisations to divest from nuclear weapons companies since 2015.[1] We focus on the nuclear weapons industry because we seek to disrupt the production and development of the most indiscriminate and destructive weapons in existence.

Any use of nuclear weapons would have devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences. A large-scale nuclear war would trigger a “nuclear winter” that would threaten the very survival of the human race (see section 3.3).

But we recognise that nuclear weapons are not the only existential threat facing humanity.

Our planet is now on average 1.1 °C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times as a result of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. The effects of this heating are already causing humanitarian crises (see section 1.1). If we do not make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep the global average temperature increase within 1. 5°C, we will face more frequent extreme weather events, rising sea levels that will displace millions and a drastic increase in food insecurity.[2]

Current global heating projections indicate that the world could be heading for an average temperature increase of 4 °C by 2100, a scenario that could bring about the end of human civilisation. Other environmental consequences of human activity, such as species extinction, biodiversity loss, deforestation and soil degradation,[3] threaten our future too.

The burning of fossil fuels is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and therefore a key driver of climate change. For this reason, Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland argues that Scottish financial institutions and public sector organisations must divest from companies that extract, produce or sell fossil fuels, as well as those that produce nuclear weapons.[4]

Beyond the existential threat that both the climate emergency and nuclear weapons present, the issues intersect in a number of ways. This report gives an overview of some of the connections.

Nuclear weapons won’t stop the climate crisis

Nuclear weapons serve no legitimate military purpose and cannot defend against the most serious threats to human security, such as climate disruption, terrorist attacks and pandemics (the COVID-19 crisis is discussed in section 1.3). Moreover, nuclear weapons divert money and skills away from initiatives that do actually address these threats.

In section 1.2.1 we show that nuclear-armed nations, including the US and the UK, spend more on weapons of mass destruction every year than they provide to developing nations in the form of climate finance.

We argue in section 1.2.3 that any Green New Deal plans should include a transition away from military production, as well as a transition away from fossil fuels.

Nuclear competition detracts from dealing with the climate emergency

At a time when nations should be cooperating on tackling the climate crisis, nuclear weapons states are becoming increasingly competitive. Vast sums of money are being spent on the “modernisation” of nuclear warheads, their delivery systems and delivery platforms.

This new arms race increases the risk of climate-related conflict involving nuclear weapons. This is explored in section 2, with a focus on Asia and the Arctic.

Nuclear weapons cause environmental devastation

Just one nuclear weapon can destroy a whole city. We use NUKEMAP modelling in section 3.3.1 to show that a nuclear bomb detonated in the centre of Glasgow would kill nearly 80,000 people and spread radioactive fallout over a large area of Scotland. In section 3.3.2 we explain how a nuclear war would cause environmental devastation far beyond the war zone and alter the global climate.

But nuclear weapons cause untold environmental harm, regardless of whether or not they are used in conflict. Where the environment is degraded, people suffer, as case studies in section 3.

Uranium mining, plutonium production and nuclear weapons testing have contaminated our air, land and water with harmful radioactive particles.[5] This contamination has rendered the worst-affected areas unsafe for human habitation, poisoned marine eco-systems, deprived communities of access to key natural resources and caused serious health problems in local people.

Nuclear and climate injustices are connected

Indigenous people and people of colour have been disproportionately affected by nuclear weapons activities as a result of the nuclear colonialism of major powers. In many cases, these states have refused to acknowledge responsibility for the harm caused by uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing and have paid little or no compensation to those affected.[6]

These injustices are paralleled by the injustices of climate change, as section 3.2 shows. The lives of Indigenous people and people of colour were deemed to be expendable by states seeking power and status through the development of nuclear weapons. Now millions of people in the Global South are being left to the mercy of climate disruption in order to maintain an economic system that amasses wealth and power for a small minority.

Countries of the Global North grew rich through industrialisation that was powered by the burning of fossil fuels. European countries and the US are responsible for half of the carbon dioxide emitted since 1750.[7]

Developing nations are now being disproportionately impacted by a climate crisis that they did not cause. In some instances, communities that bore the brunt of nuclear weapons testing are now the most at risk from weather-related disasters and rising seas (see the case studies on the Marshall Islands and Kiribati in section 3.2).

In order to limit further global heating and avert the worst-case climate scenario, all nations must transition to low-carbon economies. That means, among other measures, ending the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, switching to renewable forms of energy and moving away from industrial agriculture. More fundamentally, it means abandoning an economic model that depends on over-consumption and infinite growth.

Change of this nature is threatening to those who have grown rich and powerful from the current system. This elite minority “has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets”[8] and has thus been able to influence the form that climate action has taken. The result has been measures, like emissions trading schemes and carbon offsetting, that fail to address the root causes of climate change.

Developed nations have also resisted the developing world’s calls for climate justice. That would mean cutting carbon emissions at a faster rate than developing nations and providing compensation to those nations for the loss and damage caused by the climate emergency.[9]

In other words, “business as usual” has continued; carbon emissions hit a new high in 2018.[10]

This elite power is backed up by force. Militaries are used to exert control over natural resources, such as fossil fuels, and to open up new markets. Arms are sold to repressive regimes and used to quell movements that demand political and economic reform. Nuclear weapons are used to project power over other nations and maintain the unjust and unsustainable international order.

Militarism and its ultimate manifestation – nuclear weapons – are thus an impediment to climate justice.

Challenging power, creating change

Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland believes that it is crucial to highlight the connections between climate change, nuclear weapons, militarism, environmental destruction, racism, sexism and social injustice in order to build a broad-based movement that can challenge existing power structures and bring about systemic change.

The economic and social outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis have underscored the need for a radical transformation of our economies (see section 1.3). In the concluding section, we highlight an example of how many different organisations are coming together in the wake of the pandemic to demand that the Scottish government implement an economic recovery that puts people and planet before profit.

[1] See https://nukedivestmentscotland.org/.

[2] “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, October 2018):  https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Full_Report_High_Res.pdf.

[3] See “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, August 2019): https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/11/SRCCL-Full-Report-Compiled-191128.pdf.

[4] See Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Divest Scotland campaign: https://foe.scot/campaign/fossil-fuel-divestment/.

[5] For and overview of the health hazards associated with exposure to radionuclides see: https://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/general-overview-of-theeffects-of-nuclear-testing/page-3-general-overview/.

[6] “Around the world, victim assistance comes up short” (ICAN): https://www.icanw.org/around_the_world_victim_assistance_comes_up_short.

[7] H Ritchie and M Roser, “CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions” (Our World In Data): https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[8] N Klein, This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs. The Climate (Penguin, 2014).

[9] C Rance, “Rich Countries must pay their climate debt” (Friends of the Earth Scotland, December 2019): https://foe.scot/rich-countries-must-pay-their-climate-debt/.

[10] P Friedlingstein et al, “Global Carbon Budget 2019” (multiple authors), Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 11, 1783–1838, 2019: https://www.earth-syst-sci-data.net/11/1783/2019/.