Winners of Youth Climate Video Competition: Phuong Vu Hoang (left) and Faouzia Bahloul (right). Credit: UNFCCC. - Photo: 2021

The Creative and Destructive Aspects of Homo Sapiens

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is Ambassador, former High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs and current President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs

NEW YORK (IDN) — We do not know exactly how many millennia ago human beings started their ascent among other species to become dominant over the planet. We can, however, pinpoint with certainty in the Industrial Revolution the beginning of the rapid development of science, manufacturing techniques, trade and other skills that allowed unprecedented material progress particularly since the second half of last century.

Humanity’s saga in search of material satisfaction, physical security and spiritual fulfilment is at the same time impressive and frightening. In the relatively short span of about three centuries Man became the greatest predator of the finite resources at his reach and inventor of the most destructive war-fighting devices as well as engineer of bountiful harvests and of instruments to make life longer, easier and more rewarding.

At the same time, however, such transformations brought increasing anxiety about the sustainability of current patterns of consumption and about international peace and security in a world awash with weapons that can wipe off civilization at the touch of a button. As we start the third decade of the 21st century, it seems advisable to ponder where we may find ourselves in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps out of undue hubris we self-defined our species as homo sapiens but there is considerable uncertainty about the wisdom of our own actions.

Contentious reality

During the recent decades and with an increasing speed that intensified since the mid-1990’s extraordinary technological advances raised to even higher levels the general standards of living as well as the quality of food and health for a large part of humankind, although a significant part of the inhabitants of our planet still manages to survive without the essential elements for a dignified existence.

This disheartening reality is further compounded by more immediate and fearsome prospects. Humanity as a whole lives today under the shadow of two sources of dread for which it has been unable to adopt effective solutions: the existence of nuclear weapons and climate change. To the risks of a nuclear or a climatic catastrophe, one must add the possibility of the upsurge of new pandemics such as COVID-19 that may spread around the globe more rapidly and with deadlier consequences.

The 2021 Global Risks Report just published by the World Economic Forum identifies extreme weather events as a clear and present danger and weapons of mass destruction as an existential threat while the outbreak of new and deadly infections is ranked at the top among the likely highest impact risks within the current decade.

The atomic threat emerged seventy-five years ago. From then on, the destructive potential of nuclear arsenals has increased exponentially with the development of new weapons and offensive systems, although the total amount of nuclear warheads in the hands of a small number of states has been significantly reduced in relation to the insane record of about 70,000 reached at the height of the Cold War.

Warfighting capabilities

Even so, those states are engaged to a greater or lesser extent in a race for technological improvements of their warfighting capabilities. The debatable doctrine of nuclear deterrence which has been at the basis of the competition between the members of this small group seems to have been replaced by a hastened search for absolute military supremacy.

These factors, besides mistrust, rivalry and animosity among the most armed nations have for a long time hampered the full utilization of the instruments that the international community managed to adopt as universal norms of behaviour, particularly the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the provisions of specific instruments.

Chief among other relevant texts is the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which entered into force fifty years ago and whose parties undertook to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”, a commitment that until now has not been fulfilled by the nuclear-weapon states.

Another treaty, known as the CTBT and concluded in 1996 outlawed all weapon tests in all environments. It has 185 signatories, 169 of which also ratified it, but is still not in force because some states, mostly nuclear, have not yet decided to sign or ratify. In 2017, 122 nations adopted the TPNW, a treaty that completely bans nuclear weapons. It already entered into force but continues to face fierce opposition by the few states that possess such armament.

Legal obligations abandoned

By and large, legal obligations expressed in other texts have been abandoned or ignored, political commitments have been dismissed and trust in and the prestige of multilateral institutions have waned.

In the past few years, the conceptual and institutional framework painstakingly built since the end of World War I has been the target of doubts and open discredit. The existing international set of norms and organs has not been able to deal effectively with important issues relating to world security such as the maintenance of peace, disarmament in all its aspects or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In spite of significant progress in several spheres, the exacerbation of nationalism and authoritarianism, a misguided interpretation of the meaning of national sovereignty and an excessive emphasis on the external projection of military might brought forth the risk that the definition and practice of international law become increasingly subject to parochial views and interests of the powerful.  

The unfortunate result is that it has been increasingly difficult to take forward in multilateral forums proposals for the negotiation of effective norms for the progressive reduction of nuclear arsenals within set time frames and under adequate verification that could lead to the complete elimination of those weapons and of the threat they pose. The deliberative and negotiating bodies set up to tackle those questions have been at a virtual standstill for several years now.

Bilateral and plurilateral initiatives on arms control are currently threatened or have been discarded. In the current panorama, the decision by Russia and the United States to keep in force the 2009 New START Treaty that set limits on their nuclear forces brings the hope of further reductions of the respective arsenals and possible understandings on other aspects.

The risk of a nuclear conflagration remains high. Nine states still possess nuclear arsenals totalling approximately 14.000 such weapons and have stated their willingness to use them in the circumstances they see fit. About 2,000 of those arms are deployed and ready for firing in over one hundred locations around the world, not counting those that permanently overfly the globe on board of bombers or cruise the depths of the oceans in submarines with highly precise and long-range launching systems.

In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists instituted the “Doomsday Clock”, where midnight marks the time of the total destruction of the planet and its civilization. For the past two years since its creation, the Clock has been kept at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest ever to the fatal moment.

In an interview in 1995, General George Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, said: “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention — probably the latter in greatest proportion”. Recently, the former Secretary of Defense of the United States, William Perry echoed those words by stating that “we avoided nuclear catastrophe by good luck and not by good management”.

Threatening climate emergency

he climate emergency, which becomes more threatening as time goes by without decisive, joint action is obviously in dire need of good management.  Average temperatures increase each year, and the Arctic and Antarctic icecaps keep melting ever faster causing the ocean levels to rise and putting in immediate danger millions of inhabitants of coastal regions and low-lying areas. Changes in rainfall patterns in several parts of the world give rise to protracted droughts and disastrous floods, hampering agriculture and jeopardizing the livelihood of populations. Specialists warn that soon we may reach a point of no return that will make it impossible to reverse the most harmful effects of the change in climatic conditions.

In addition to those two pressing threats, mankind must contend with COVID-19, which already claimed the lives of over 2.5 million people worldwide and generates deep social and political tensions as a result of loss of family members, reduction of economic activities, growing unemployment and unprecedented measures of social distancing. Some scientists predict that new and more dangerous mutations of this virus, as well as unknown strains, may appear in the near future.

The consequences of nuclear detonations and of profound changes in the global climate, as well as those resulting from uncontrollable pandemics, do not respect national boundaries and require immediate action. Throughout history, humankind has been able to overcome important challenges by means of resiliency, cooperation and solidarity. In the not-so-distant past protracted wars, widespread famine and serious threats to international security, as well as mortal epidemics and pandemics have been defeated.

More recently, the discovery of vaccines and new methods of treatment including modern prophylaxis have permitted the eradication or the drastic reduction of the incidence and effects of a large number of infectious agents.  Nothing seems to indicate that the same success cannot be achieved against the Coronavirus and other evils if we act with determination, perseverance and cooperation.

However, vaccines produced in scientific laboratories cannot prevent the negative effects of the deep changes in the world climate or of the widespread damage from nuclear explosions. The antidotes for the climate insecurity and for the atomic threat in fact already exist in our own capacity to act together with common sense and intelligence.

For this, it is necessary to leave aside cynicism and complacency and reject deceptive arguments aimed at perpetuating the existence of nuclear weapons. Far from providing absolute security, the possession and employment of those weapons, albeit in extreme circumstances and in a “limited” confrontation carry the risk of uncontrollable escalation that leads to the total destruction of both sides in conflict together with regions not directly involved and ultimately to incalculable material and human losses and may entail the irretrievable disappearance of the conditions that allow life on Earth.

Decisive and effective action depends on the widespread awareness of the risks and threats of the existence of nuclear weapons and of the further deterioration of the environment. Reiterated, earnest warnings from retired statesmen are wise and must be heeded, but it is up to those in power to take up their responsibilities. Just as with the grave pandemic that ravages the planet, such risks and threats can be contained and finally eliminated through urgent, coordinated and solidary multilateral action. There is no other way to confront the dreadful prospects that continue to haunt humanity. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 February 2021]

Image: The collage of Hubble Ultra Deep Field includes galaxies of various ages, sizes, shapes, and colours (left) and Atomic bombings of Nagasaki.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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