The return of Dr Strangelove?

9 June 2005
The mathemathics is straightforward, and the leaders of the world's most powerful countries need to act fast.

So argues Fred Pearce on openDemocracy in an incisive memo to the G8 leaders.

It seems so logical. openDemocracy's front page billed it like this:

"The world's leaders can help save the Earth. Will they? Perhaps, if they read Fred Pearce's open letter".

But almost none of us - including Fred - thinks politics actually works that way. Prudent, evidence-based policies? Reasoned case, considered response?

Follow the money

The drivers are more complex and - as Oscar Wilde said about the truth – rarely pure and never simple.

What, then, leads to change where it really matters? Some activists and others place hope in building citizen pressure (one example is Friends of the Earth's Big Ask). Certainly, popular opinion has moved mountains in the past.

But whatever one’s strategy for change, it is probably wise not to assume that political leaders and powerful interests groups are rational actors with the best interests of the people who elect them or the wider societies in which they operate at heart.

In a recent analysis on openDemocracy, Paul Rogers sees the United States embarking on a thirty years war in Iraq:

"Over two years [after the invasion], it is evident which route has been taken. U.S. forces have lost over 1,600 killed and 11,000 seriously injured; the Iraqis have lost close to 30,000 killed and tens of thousands injured; yet the war goes on, and on. At particular times there may appear to be short-term gains for one side or the other, but the reality is that this is a deeply embedded and long-term conflict.

Beyond the immediate sequences of events, it has to be remembered that the Iraq war forms just one part of a much bigger picture: control of the world’s key energy resource. Until there is a fundamental rethink about the security of Gulf oil supplies, that war will continue...The world faces the grim prospect of endless war in one of the world’s most volatile regions".

According to this analysis, U.S leaders - and others - are continuing a strategy for control of the lion's share of global fossil fuel resources to which every other consideration, including climate change and the war on poverty, is secondary.

Do not go gentle

Further, as Michael Byers puts it in an article recently cited in this blog (The democracy trap?), there may be some hard, albeit distorted, realpolitik at work:

"Washington's resistance (to concerted multilateral action on climate change) has to do with the centrality of military strategy in contemporary policy-making. Donald Rumsfeld and others like him have apparently calculated that climate change will enhance rather than detract from the country’s long-term security. The US, with its flexible economy, temperate location, low population density and access to Canadian water, oil, natural gas and agriculture, would suffer less than other major countries as a result of climate change. 'With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology and abundant resources,' a report prepared last year for the Pentagon concluded, 'the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses... even in this continuous state of emergency the US will be positioned well compared to others'."

War is a force that gives us meaning

Such analyses may be mistaken, but, given the weight of evidence, the burden of proof should be on those who disagree. After all, as Robert McNamara shows in an important piece for Foreign Policy magazine, important influences on decision making are still not so far from the "mine gap" mentality of Dr Strangelove:

"It is time — well past time, in my view — for the United States to cease its Cold War-style reliance on nuclear weapons as a foreign-policy tool. At the risk of appearing simplistic and provocative, I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high. Far from reducing these risks, the Bush administration has signaled that it is committed to keeping the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a mainstay of its military power — a commitment that is simultaneously eroding the international norms that have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and fissile materials for 50 years. Much of the current U.S. nuclear policy has been in place since before I was secretary of defense, and it has only grown more dangerous and diplomatically destructive in the intervening years".

As Fred Pearce notes, the scientists have given clear warning of an impending climate crisis. We may be heading towards a situation analogous to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of the threat to human and other life. As Robert McNamara observes:

"In conventional war, mistakes cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. However, if mistakes were to affect decisions relating to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning curve. They would result in the destruction of nations. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of nuclear catastrophe. There is no way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, other than to first eliminate the hair-trigger alert policy and later to eliminate or nearly eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States should move immediately to institute these actions, in cooperation with Russia. That is the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis".

Caspar Henderson

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