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climate change and nuking a hurricane

Our Apocalypses, Ourselves

Climate change, the Cold War, and why nobody should ever, under any circumstances, nuke a hurricane.

Words: Emma Claire Foley
Pictures: Samuel Zeller

Apparently, Donald Trump wants to fire a nuclear weapon at the eye of a hurricane. Which is a little weird even for him. But, as the original report acknowledges, it’s not a new idea — the article dates it to the Eisenhower era.

Since it’s a pretty safe bet that the President isn’t a postwar history buff, it’s worth asking how and why this and similar ideas have continued to languish on the fringes of elite thinking about managing extreme weather. In fact, the idea illuminates some basic assumptions behind the way we think about climate, technology, and national security today.

Though the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change was established in the 1900s, several historians have pointed out that the conceptual shift that cast the world as a unified system subject to human control occurred much later, as a consequence of the development of nuclear weapons. In his book “Arming Mother Nature,” Jacob Darwin Hamblin explores how large-scale investment in earth sciences research for military purposes in the early years of the Cold War unwittingly enabled the rise of the environmental movement. The potential applications considered by his subjects sometimes makes launching one measly nuclear weapon at a hurricane seem like small potatoes: among the many examples he describes, there is the May 1960 earthquake in Chile, which inspired some NATO planners to consider using a hydrogen bomb to cause a massive, destructive earthquake targeting the Soviet Union.

Many of the same people who produced the research for these potential doomsday weapons produced key research that created the concept of climate change as we know it today.

Many of the same people who produced the research for these potential doomsday weapons produced key research that created the concept of climate change as we know it today. In the words of historian Joseph Masco, the effort to understand the full consequences — and range of possible military uses — of nuclear weapons “turned the entire world into an experimental nuclear theater.” Atmospheric testing to trace fallout flows, seismological monitoring to detect test detonations, and ice core samples taken from the increasingly militarized poles all contributed to an awareness of the natural environment as a connected system, one whose tendency to change as a result of human behavior became increasingly clear over time.

But in the process, the political import of environmental catastrophe was often understood by analogy to nuclear weapons. Masco notes that nuclear weapons set the pattern for understanding existential threats, and that both popular depictions of climate apocalypse and official assessments of climate change as a national security threat draw on the visual and strategic legacy of nuclear weapons. The 1977 passage of the Environmental Modification Convention (or properly the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques), while not remembered with the same reverence as some landmark nuclear arms control treaties, should be considered part of the same movement — one that recognized that certain members of the human species have the ability to destroy not just everyone else, but the very planet they live on. The attempt to control these abilities using ambitious treaties was an acknowledgment that threats of this scale could not be neatly confined to one area of the globe; cooperation is not only the right thing to do, but the key to survival.

Nuking a hurricane, on the other hand, is something you might do when you’re sure that all threats can be externalized, obliterated, left for somebody else to deal with if you just throw enough firepower their way. So while the links between nuclear weapons technology and the scientific and political understanding of climate change as an existential threat seems clear enough, the idea of just mushing the two together by throwing a nuclear weapon at a hurricane is just the fevered imaginative excesses of a few powerful weirdos down the decades, right?

Perhaps. But because as it stands the president of the United States is the only person legally empowered to order the launch of a nuclear weapon in whatever direction, you can only laugh so long before you have to stop and consider how little could be done if a sitting president did decide to launch a nuclear weapon into a hurricane.

All of which is to say: it’s very okay to laugh at this latest flamboyantly terrible thing that the president said, and indeed I think we all should. But any approach to climate change that relies on miracle solutions without taking into account their potential consequences — and without confronting the interests that make it easier to imagine a kind of doomsday machine as our salvation in disguise than to address the problem’s actual causes — is at best a promising movie concept, at worst its own disaster in the making. (The same goes for the iceberg printer, the also-ran of kooky climate change solutions Internet for this week.)

And finally, historical links between nuclear weapons and climate change haven’t gone away, just as nuclear weapons haven’t gone away even as climate change has emerged as the most publicly visible existential threat to human life. Political volatility and economic inequality exacerbated by climate change won’t make for a stable arms control regime, and we’ve already seen what trading nuclear threats does to international cooperation to address shared threats. As long as we have exactly one earth, a vision for a future free from one must address both.

Emma Claire Foley is a Program Associate at Global Zero. 

Emma Claire Foley

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