This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
[Note to TomDispatch Readers: Today, this website offers its second and final excerpt from Noam Chomsky's must-read new book, Who Rules the World? We previously featured a two-part essay, "Masters of Mankind," from that book. (Part 1 can be read here and part 2 here.) Now, Chomsky turns to the single most vital question for humanity: Will we destroy ourselves?
He hadn't been in office three months when he went to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, and delivered remarks on the world's nuclear dilemma. They proved to be of a sort that might normally have come from an antinuclear activist or someone in the then just-budding climate change movement, not the president of the United States. While calling for the use of new forms of energy, Barack Obama spoke with rare presidential eloquence of the dangers of a planet in which nuclear weapons were spreading and of how that spread, if unchecked, would make their use "inevitable." He called for a "world without nuclear weapons" and said bluntly, "As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." He even promised to take "concrete steps" to begin to build just such a world without such weapons.
Seven years later, the record of America's first and possibly only abolitionist president is in. The U.S. nuclear arsenal -- at 4,571 warheads (far below the almost 19,000 in existence in 1991 when the Soviet Union imploded) -- remains large enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the latest Pentagon figures on that arsenal indicate that "the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile less than any other post-Cold War administration, and that the number of warheads dismantled in 2015 was [the] lowest since President Obama took office." To put that in perspective, Obama has done significantly less than George W. Bush when it comes to drawing down the existing American arsenal.
At the same time, our abolitionist president is now presiding over the so-called modernization of that same arsenal, a massive three-decade project now estimated to cost at least a trillion dollars -- before, of course, the usual cost overruns set in. In the process, new weapons systems will be produced, the first "smart" nukes created (think: "precision" weapons with far more minimal "yields," which means first-use battlefield nukes), and god knows what else.
He does have one antinuclear success, his agreement with Iran ensuring that country will not produce such a weapon. Still, such a dismal record from a president seemingly determined to set the U.S. on the abolitionist path tells us something about the nuclear dilemma and the grip the national security state has on his thinking (and assumedly that of any future president).
It's no small horror that, on this planet of ours, humanity continues to foster two apocalyptic forces, each of which -- one in a relative instant and the other over many decades -- could cripple or destroy human life as we know it. That should be sobering indeed for all of us. It's the subject that Noam Chomsky takes up in this essay from his remarkable new book, Who Rules the World? Tom
The Doomsday Clock
Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change, and the Prospects for Survival
By Noam Chomsky
[This essay is excerpted from Noam Chomsky's new book, Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books).]
In January 2015, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced its famous Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight, a threat level that had not been reached for 30 years. The Bulletin's statement explaining this advance toward catastrophe invoked the two major threats to survival: nuclear weapons and "unchecked climate change." The call condemned world leaders, who "have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe," endangering "every person on Earth [by] failing to perform their most important duty -- ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization."
Since then, there has been good reason to consider moving the hands even closer to doomsday.
As 2015 ended, world leaders met in Paris to address the severe problem of "unchecked climate change." Hardly a day passes without new evidence of how severe the crisis is. To pick almost at random, shortly before the opening of the Paris conference, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab released a study that both surprised and alarmed scientists who have been studying Arctic ice. The study showed that a huge Greenland glacier, Zachariae Isstrom, "broke loose from a glaciologically stable position in 2012 and entered a phase of accelerated retreat," an unexpected and ominous development. The glacier "holds enough water to raise global sea level by more than 18 inches (46 centimeters) if it were to melt completely. And now it's on a crash diet, losing 5 billion tons of mass every year. All that ice is crumbling into the North Atlantic Ocean."
Yet there was little expectation that world leaders in Paris would "act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe." And even if by some miracle they had, it would have been of limited value, for reasons that should be deeply disturbing.
When the agreement was approved in Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who hosted the talks, announced that it is "legally binding." That may be the hope, but there are more than a few obstacles that are worthy of careful attention.
In all of the extensive media coverage of the Paris conference, perhaps the most important sentences were these, buried near the end of a long New York Times analysis: "Traditionally, negotiators have sought to forge a legally binding treaty that needed ratification by the governments of the participating countries to have force. There is no way to get that in this case, because of the United States. A treaty would be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill without the required two-thirds majority vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. So the voluntary plans are taking the place of mandatory, top-down targets." And voluntary plans are a guarantee of failure.
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