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General News    H3'ed 2/9/21

Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, 100 Seconds to Midnight?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If I were a religious man (which I'm not), I'd say that it was little short of a miracle. After all, from the spear to the crossbow, the flintlock rifle to the fighter-bomber, humanity has been known, historically, for quickly adopting and using any new weaponry created. Nuclear arms should be considered the miraculous exception. Yes, at the end of World War II, the U.S. took out two Japanese cities in a devastating fashion with two atomic bombs, but three-quarters of a century has now passed and, though such weaponry has spread from the United States to eight other countries, no nuclear weapon has ever again been used. And that's true, despite regular predictions to the contrary like, for instance, the recent suggestion of Vice Admiral Charles Richard, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, that a nuclear war with China or Russia is a "real possibility" in the near future that "a regional crisis" with either of those countries "could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons."

Similarly, consider it a miracle that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, often seemingly at the edge of war, have never gone nuclear in a regional conflict that could put enough smoke and soot particulates into the atmosphere to cause a global nuclear winter. In such a case, it's estimated, somewhere between one and two billion inhabitants of this planet could die (mainly from crop failures and starvation).

Similarly, consider it a sort of miracle in reverse that humanity, which once left the very idea of Armageddon to the gods, has now found at least two ways of producing such ultimate havoc on this planet, nuclear weapons and climate change (and that's without considering pandemics). Even more curiously, the United States, with the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, continues to plough staggering amounts of money into what it proudly calls its "nuclear triad" of bombers, submarines, and long-range missiles.

It's strange to think that humanity has, in a sense, been eternally asking for it. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon considers the ultimate strangeness of that very reality and the context for it, while the rest of us await a miracle. Tom

The Fire Next Time
Climate Change, the Bomb, or the Flame of Hope?

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If you live in California, you're likely to be consumed on occasion by thoughts of fire. That's not surprising, given that, in last year alone, actual fires consumed over four and a quarter million acres of the state, taking with them 10,488 structures, 33 human lives, and who knows how many animals. By the end of this January, a month never before even considered part of the "fire" season, 10 wildfires had already burned through 2,337 more acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

With each passing year, the state's fire season arrives earlier and does greater damage. In 2013, a mere eight years ago, fires consumed about 602,000 acres and started significantly later. That January, CalFire reported only a single fire, just two in February, and none in March. Fire season didn't really begin until April and had tapered off before year's end. This past December, however, 10 fires still burned at least 10,000 acres. In fact, it almost doesn't make sense to talk about a fire "season" anymore. Whatever the month, wildfires are likely to be burning somewhere in the state.

Clearly, California's fires (along with Oregon's and Washington's) are getting worse. Just as clearly, notwithstanding Donald Trump's exhortations to do a better job of "raking" our forests, climate change is the main cause of this growing disaster.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden seems to take the climate emergency seriously. In just his first two weeks in office, he's cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline project, forbidden new drilling for oil or gas on public lands, and announced a plan to convert the entire federal fleet of cars and trucks to electric vehicles. Perhaps most important of all, he's bringing the U.S. back into the Paris climate accords, signaling an understanding that a planetary crisis demands planetwide measures and that the largest carbon-emitting economies should be leading the way. "This isn't [the] time for small measures," Biden has said. "We need to be bold."

Let's just hope that such boldness has arrived in time and that the Biden administration proves unwilling to sacrifice the planet on an altar of elusive congressional unity and illusionary bipartisanship.

Another Kind of Fire

If climate change threatens human life as we know it, so does another potential form of "fire" the awesome power created when a nuclear reaction converts matter to energy. This is the magic of Einstein's observation that e=mc2, or that the energy contained in a bit of matter is equal to its mass (roughly speaking, its weight) multiplied by the speed of light expressed in meters per second. Roughly speaking, as we've all known since August 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, that's an awful lot of energy. When a nuclear reaction is successfully controlled, the energy can be regulated and used to produce electricity without emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

Unfortunately, while nuclear power plants don't add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, they do create radioactive waste, some of which remains deadly for thousands of years. Industry advocates who argue for nuclear power as a "green" alternative generally ignore the problem which has yet to be solved ­­ of disposing of that waste.

In what hopefully is just a holdover from the Trump administration, the Energy Department website still "addresses" this issue by suggesting that all the nuclear waste produced to date "could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!" The site neglects to add that, if you shoved that 3,456,000 square feet of nuclear waste together the wrong way, the resultant explosive chain reaction would probably wipe out most life on Earth.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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