Hiroshima in slow motion

Hiroshima after the bomb

Hiroshima, September 1945

Seventy years after Hiroshima was obliterated by the bomb nicknamed Little Boy, human civilization is still threatened by the specter of nuclear war. But we are now faced with a more insidious danger, with equally grave consequences: climate change. A global catastrophe that unfolds over decades is no less dangerous than a one-day exchange of megaton missiles. Hiroshima in slow motion is still Hiroshima.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been keeping track of the ebb and flow of nuclear threat since 1947, marking its current state on the ominously named Doomsday Clock. This year, the Bulletin added climate danger to its calculations and set the clock to three minutes to midnight, a red-alert level not seen since the height of the Cold War. The explanation:

In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.

The threats of nuclear war and of climate catastrophe, in fact, are intertwined. If we rely on nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we increase the risk that nuclear weapons proliferate. If we don’t reduce emissions, the resulting scarcity of resources—especially fresh water and affordable food—will increase international tensions that could lead to nuclear war.

Where is our urgency?

But these threats follow different timelines and elicit very different psychological and social responses. The old era of hair-trigger alerts and the MAD (mutual assured destruction) doctrine generated a sense of urgency that led to significant reductions in nuclear weapons—enough to diminish, though not erase, the danger. Climate change, however, is occurring gradually, with the worst effects decades away—and our fight-or-flight response is dampened by the apparent lack of immediacy.

True, there are harbingers of disaster. We might call them, appropriately, canaries in the coal mine. Extended drought in California. Flooded New York subways. Parking lots in Miami submerged at every high tide. Urgency is called for. And these canaries are keeling over ever more frequently, as Eric Holthaus writes in the latest issue of Rolling Stone:

In just the past few months, record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India each killed more than 1,000 people. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, the rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K.; The Guardian briefly had to pause its live blog of the heat wave because its computer servers overheated. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventyfold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains.

No, the world is not coming to an end. That’s not likely to happen for another five billion years or so, when the sun expands as a red giant and envelops the Earth. But the habitable space on Earth is diminishing, year by year, as we spew yet more carbon pollution into the atmosphere and the global temperature creeps inexorably upward. Without an unprecedented international effort to change the Earth’s energy economy, humans will soon be squabbling over the tattered remains of what Pope Francis calls “our common home.”

What can we do?

The situation is dire, but far from hopeless. The first requisite is a clear sense of urgency, a realization that immediate response is essential. The worst effects are in the future, but strong hints of environmental degradation are already apparent. Next we can convey that sense of urgency to friends and neighbors—and, crucially, to our legislators at every level of government. We can urge Congress to support Obama’s just-released Clean Power Plan—described by the Union of Concerned Scientists as “a catalyst for a clean energy economy”—and to go even further in support of a carbon-free future.

Here in California, we have an immediate task. We must ensure that the State Assembly enacts the suite of climate bills recently passed by the State Senate, including:

  • SB 32, which sets a long-term target for climate pollution reduction
  • SB 350, which sets 50% improvement goals by 2030 in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and petroleum reduction
  • SB 185, which mandates that the two large California pension funds divest from coal companies

If you live in California, send a message to your Assembly Member today. Sign our petition asking support for SB 185, the first state divestment bill in the nation, to signal that we are on the path to a fossil free economy. And write or visit your legislators to urge them to support all of these climate bills.

The situation is perilous, but there is no reason for despair. This December, national leaders from around the world will gather in Paris to hammer out a universal climate agreement. The signs are positive, as China, the US, and Brazil, among many other countries, have already outlined their national plans to rescue the climate.

With our help, Hiroshima need not happen again, not even in slow motion.


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