Ours are the first generations in history to face existential risk: the risk that we will extinguish life on Earth. The fact that this risk confronts us in more than one form suggests that the problem is systemic, with deep roots in our ways of thinking and acting.
“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable,” John F. Kennedy told the United Nations in 1961. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” Despite the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat. Even an unanswered nuclear attack by the United States or Russia would have global environmental effects that killed every American or Russian. Yet both countries continue to see nuclear weapons as central to their security.
Most political leaders are not insance in any ordinary sense of the word. But they act that way when armed with nuclear weapons. We use our nuclear arsenal not just to deter a nuclear attack on the United States but as a threat to deter other actions we do not like, whether it would make sense to use nuclear weapons under those circumstances or not. During the Cold War, the United States threatened a nuclear attack on Russia if it occupied West Berlin. NATO commits its members to defend each other with “any means necessary,” so the West would presumably be obliged to use nuclear weapons on behalf of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, and Bulgaria, even those these had been part of the old Soviet orbit in the Warsaw Pact. It is true that the nuclear guarantee makes it less likely Russia will attack them, but if it did, we would be committed to a nuclear attack that would likely end life on Earth. The same goes for our implicitly nuclear guarantee of Taiwan, which China does not recognize. Pretending not to care that the nuclear defense is insane is very useful – right up to the point you have to carry it out. One problem is that the other side is apt to think you are bluffing, as indeed you may be; and then, in a crisis, people feel obliged to carry out threats that make no sense. The most likely way for a nuclear war to begin is miscalculation in time of crisis.
Kennedy did not know that the planet might become uninhabitable a second way – through climate change. Tim Lenton, the director of the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute and co-author of a recent study, said the recent record-breaking heatwaves in western United States and Canada showed that the climate had already begun to “behave in shocking, unexpected ways.” “We need to respond to the evidence that we are hitting climate tipping points with equally urgent action to decarbonize the global economy and start restoring instead of destroying nature,” he said. The researchers said there was “mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed” a number of climate tipping points.
Yet many people react to these warnings with angry defensiveness, because they rightly sense that the crises threaten their way of life – in other words, they require systemic change. “We need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue: global heating is not the sole symptom of our stressed Earth system,” said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. “Policies to combat the climate crisis or any other symptoms should address their root cause: human overexploitation of the planet,” Ripple said. This overexploitation is a manifestation of an obsolete, indeed fatal, way of thinking and acting. It applies as much to the danger of nuclear weapons as of climate change. To change requires that we open ourselves to creative uncertainty.
As with nuclear weapons, with climate change ordinarily sane people have to act insanely on the issues of greatest importance. For years, fossil fuel companies deliberately deceived the public on climate risk, and it became obligatory for conservative Republicans to claim that global warming was a hoax. Climate science became part of the culture wars. Even on the other side of the culture wars, more liberal politicians have to make their climate policies saleable. U.S. President Joe Biden says that good climate policy guarantees good American jobs for the industrial working class – building electric vehicles, for example. So far, so good. But is it enough? What about a climate tax charging polluters the true social cost of carbon pollution? What about a tax on meat? These are political non-starters, but in a true climate emergency, they might be necessary. We pretend not to know what we cannot help knowing: that we are recklessly endangering our survival.
Those who call for abolishing nuclear weapons or drastically cutting fossil fuels are often dismissed as “utopians.” Without nuclear weapons, “realists” will argue, we would be vulnerable to cheaters: some nation would secretly keep one nuclear weapon and tyrannize the world. Even apart from that, without a U.S. nuclear threat, what would stop Russia invading Ukraine or Lithuania or China seizing Taiwan? The question is whether those are issues for which we are willing to end life on Earth. If we rely on a nuclear bluff, then one day, we will have to make good on our threat, with all its consequences – unless meanwhile we have found a new basis for national and global security.
Likewise, the climate emergency cuts to the heart of our addiction to fossil fuels. To change that on the scale required is not just a matter of a solar roof. It goes to everything we do, from our diet to our transportation to the chasm of injustice separarting affluent Americans (or Europeans or Asians) from the world’s poor, who have never enjoyed the affuence that high energy lifestyles made possible. Economic growth has been our preferred substitute for sharing. T o change, in short, requires change on a scale that we cannot fully foreseee or calculate in advance. It involves risks for all of us, as the only alternative to the existential risks of business as usual. The paradox is that to have any hope of reducing existential risk, we must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.