Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine is a gut-wrenching lesson in how a rogue ruler can extort the world into standing by while his armies commit heinous crimes against humanity. This is the downside of globalization. One deranged despot can violently shake the web that connects us all to support our collective security, peace, and morality.
Vladimir Putin has taken our humanity hostage with oil and nuclear arms. Both are more than weapons of mass destruction; they are weapons of mass extinction, one by holocaust and the other by making the Earth unlivable for many species. Putin used oil and nukes to stop the world from directly confronting his armies while they violated international borders, indiscriminately executed civilians, raped women, reduced historic cities to rubble, forced millions of people to flee their homeland, and allowed at least 100,000 others to starve under siege.
The international community and NATO nations, in particular, have shown exemplary unity by leveling unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia, Putin, and his cronies. However, with his oil and nuclear arsenals, Putin intimidated the United States, Europe, and others from intervening to stop the atrocities in Ukraine.
There is only one way to keep this from happening again. We must get rid of nuclear weapons and end the world's dependence on fossil fuels. Period. Both are existential threats to life on Earth, which gives them the power to extort. Yet, from the first nuclear explosion and the first predictions of climate scientists, we have allowed our leaders to ignore the warnings.
It's important to repeat this: Retiring nuclear arms and fossil fuels is necessary not just to prevent evil men from committing atrocities; they are also the two most significant threats to life on the planet. We pretend to live in a rational world while we allow them to exist.
“Now or never”
We have the tools to rid the world of nukes and we certainly have ample reason. The April report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), history’s biggest scientific collaboration, concludes "it's now or never" to avoid intolerable changes in climate. We know how to make zero-carbon buildings, zero-carbon cars, and zero-carbon energy systems. But we've had net-zero political will.
Analysts say there are nine nuclear-armed nations now with 13,000 warheads between them. Those are the ones made public; there may be many more. Nuclear terrorism is a threat, too, but only 56 percent of countries have regulations to protect radioactive materials and only 36 percent keep a registry of radioactive sources. Only 6 percent have or intend to replace highly radioactive sources with safter technologies.
To stop carbon pollution from fossil fuels, science tells us most underground reserves must stay there. Nevertheless, a recent analysis of 150 major finance institutions—banks, investment institutions, and insurers—found fewer than half are restricting their business with oil and gas companies. Only five have stopped or constrained financing for new oil and gas production.
Another recent study looked at net-zero-carbon goals at Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. "The financial analysis reveals a continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy," analysts reported. "Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded."
Nations are passing up opportunities to make more investments in carbon-free energy. The same G-20 nations that repeatedly promised to stop subsidizing fossil fuels spent substantial portions of their COVID relief money on them. They invested more than $330 billion in fossil fuels and less than $286 billion in clean energy as of March, according to EnergyPolicyTracker, a coalition of five prominent environmental groups and Columbia University.
This year’s Global Risks Report, published by the World Economic Forum and based on input from more than 12,000 experts from 24 countries, again lists environmental issues– specifically climate-action failure, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss-- as the most potentially damaging threat to people and planet over the next decade.
In short, industrial nations exhibit the symptoms of drug addiction. We may have to reach absolute rock bottom before we decide to break the habit, but climate change will be irreversible by then. There is a point at which it becomes self-sustaining, and the IPCC says we are close.
Words of the wise
Ironically, perhaps, one of the most persistent advocates of nuclear disarmament is former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, now 91 years old and living not far from Moscow. He won the Nobel Peace Prize 32 years ago after negotiating a nuclear-arms reduction treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. "All people have to clearly state – all people – that nuclear weapons must be destroyed," he said more recently. "This way we will be saving ourselves and the planet."
However, few observations reveal the idiocy like this one from British writer Martin Amis: "What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves. "
If we survive him, Putin probably will not be the last deranged despot to threaten us with proliferating nuclear arsenals, and he will not be the last leader of an oil-rich country to threaten others with freezing alone in the dark if they try to stop his atrocities. Others have watched and learned from what's happened in Ukraine.
When will we be shocked enough, smart enough, and angry enough to keep this from happening again? And again. And again.