Exploring the links between nuclear weapons and climate change

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Climate change and nuclear weapons have one thing in common: neither are easily solvable dilemmas and require multidimensional global action.

Although the process for policy change within both is going to be long and slow, climate change is currently winning the race. On June 8th, BASIC hosted a discussion group event for young influencers and future policy makers that focused on how this has come about. From comparing the discourse and action surrounding both social challenges - approached independently from each other - three themes were frequently cited for the apparent stronger engagement with climate change: education, experience and impact.

Education
Climate change features as part of the national curriculum in the UK as part of both science and geography. Whilst some participants acknowledged more can be done within educational bodies to further the debate and further educate on associated environmental issues, it was also noted that within these subjects climate change and energy use is often addressed as a singular issue, not necessarily linked with other global issues such as conflict or trade. However, many of the participants acknowledged that their initial awareness of climate change was instigated at school. In the case of nuclear weapons, this educational awareness appeared to be minimal. History features as a compulsory subject on the UK curriculum until pupils are 14 years old, but the history curriculum provides no specific mention that pupils must engage with the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, or the longer term implications of nuclear weapons use and proliferation. Furthermore, in the discussion one participant cited the resources used for any such education will be ‘old’ Cold War resources and not necessary linked to any current day debate regarding nuclear weapons. Participants questioned why education appears to treat subjects with such isolation as opposed to addressing them within a wider agenda to broaden the topics to past, present and future. Another participant acknowledged that in their experience, the dropping of the atomic weapon on Hiroshima was taught as part of a history class relating to World War II, but it was not until later in life they realised nuclear weapons were quite so horrific and indiscriminate, and what it would actually mean if such use occurred today. Education represents a key starting point for civic engagement with a variety of issues as it creates the opportunity for all sides of the argument to be represented and explored without the need to definitely fall on one side or the other to take action. Moreover education introduces young people to debates frequently had by senior decision makers, strengthening awareness and making such discussion seem more accessible. Participants appeared to agree that education can be strengthened in relation to both climate change and nuclear weapons and the broader political agenda.

Experience and Personal Relationship
Participants raised questions regarding their personal experiences of both climate change and nuclear weapons, outside of education. One participant cited films as way of ‘experiencing’ nuclear weapons and increasing awareness of their implications and impact. However others disagreed, purporting the view that films or TV shows that truly portray the issues surrounding the weapons are documentary style or only appeal to a narrow audience, mostly likely those with an established interest in the area. There seemed to be slight disagreement over the utility of films and TV productions and their ability to be beneficial in creating engagement, with some questioning of the links between what multimedia portrays and reality. It was noted by the group that this was a clear contrast between climate change and nuclear weapons.

Participants noted that their relationship with the issues was also altered by the way the media framed them. For example, several multiple news reports covering the high levels of pollutants and poor air quality within London through the first half of 2015 have made environmental issues something many city dwellers are personally concerned about. In contrast, any media coverage of nuclear weapons usually portrays the issue as an abstract and off-shore way, leaving much of the discussion to be solely based on perception and not something the general public are able to engage with.

Impact
Through understanding their experience of both climate change and nuclear weapons participants began discussing how this, combined with their educational understanding, led them to understand their role within the debates on these two challenging social issues. Many within the group cited the direct impact they can have on climate change through their day-to-day actions. Recycling was cited as an example of how the broader public has gained increased awareness of the environment and the ‘little things’ they can do the help protect the planet. For example under the 2003 Household Waste Recycling Act, household waste collection has to divided into recyclables and non-recyclables, with separate bins provided. For nuclear weapons, tangible action, impacts and experiences are extremely limited. One participant cited a museum trip where they were able to view missiles, but the awareness is not continuous and the impact of its reality very short-lived. Recycle bins are encountered on a daily basis. Those who can truly understand the impact of nuclear weapons are few and far between.

Some participants remarked that decision makers and influencers appear determined to keep nuclear weapons discussion out of public discourse, because a small cadre of officials were charged with making the complex policy choices on behalf of the state. In a Guardian report Admiral Lord West was quoted as saying discussion of Trident is too important to be discussed within an election campaign. For some participants this rhetoric reflected a discrepancy between the climate change and nuclear weapons debate through the role of individual action. One mentioned that the media reporting on more general world issues, such as the Ukraine crisis, made him believe that he was unable to impact nuclear weapons discussion as they appeared to be necessary weapons for the current security environment and that was not something we can impact on directly. Overall many participants recognised that actively contributing to action in response to climate change was much more accessible that having any direct impact on nuclear weapons debate. This raises further questions on how to increase awareness and engagement with nuclear weapons dialogue.

Climate change has become more integrated into social discourse and modern popular culture. Through education, experience and the ability to have a direct impact, the climate change discussion was recognised as having further developed within the minds of the general public and our lifestyles. We have a personal sense of contribution to the problem, and to the solutions. However, this discussion left us all with more questions than answers regarding the distinctions and interactions between climate change and nuclear weapons and about how to make progress. This highlighted the true complexity of these issues, demonstrating the need for active cooperation across multilateral platforms.

We would be interested to hear your thoughts following the discussion, particularly on questions such as: What are the main barriers to action on climate change and nuclear weapons? Who are the main stakeholders in each discussion? Does the presence of nuclear weapons affect global cooperation to tackle other challenges, like climate change?

If you would like to be involved in researching these questions please contact rstaley@basicint.org.

About the author(s)...
  • Cristina Varriale interned in BASIC's London office during the summer 2015.
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