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Evolutionary suicide? A matter for survival

By Marko Beljac - posted Friday, 2 March 2007

Global climate change has rightfully catapulted to the top of the political agenda in Australia as the drought and the water crisis continues unabated. Much has been said and written about the implications of climate change but relatively little has been said about the link between climate change and global security, particularly the nexus between climate change and nuclear war. This is curious because the Government, and others, are presenting nuclear power as the solution to climate change.

All agree that what is at stake in the climate change debate is the very terms of future human survival perhaps going all the way to the very survival of the species itself: if so we are presented with interesting paradoxes of evolutionary biology which we might call evolution's challenge.

The Pentagon has developed the nexus between climate change and nuclear war. As far as are aware there are no Hippie or Bolshevik cells in the Pentagon so when the US Department of Defence draws a link between droughts and nukes we should at least sit up and take notice.


The Pentagon focused on what is referred to as abrupt climate change where the world's climate changes significantly and rapidly. As the report pointed out there exists evidence to suggest that such a scenario is an increasing possibility. Abrupt climate change could occur because of feedback loops, that occur in systems that are highly-interdependent such as the Earth’s climate system particularly dangerous are positive feedback loops that explosively amplify smaller initial changes, and because of the collapse of the thermohaline circulation. Both of these factors are related.

In the meantime the world's "carrying capacity" is facing a sustained challenge. The Earth's carrying capacity refers to the ability of the planet's ecosystem to support the human population. For instance, the world's demand for oil and water is going to substantially increase but supply will face a hard time keeping up. Climate change, especially abrupt climate change, will stretch the planet's carrying capacity to it very limits.

Through history humans have fought wars over scarce resources. The Pentagon pointed out (PDF 411KB) that as the Earth's carrying capacity comes under further strain "it seems undeniable that severe environmental problems are likely to escalate the degree of global conflict".

But we are also increasingly living in what strategic analysts have pointed out is a "second nuclear age". The idea is that the "first" nuclear age reflected the bi-polarity of the cold war while the second nuclear age is to be an age characterised by nuclear multi-polarity.

In the mathematics of game theory two-player games, which form the basis of formal models of nuclear deterrence, are much easier to play than n-player games where the number of players are greater than two. In fact n-player games are most complex so we are now heading towards a future characterised by many nuclear weapon states which implies more complex non-linear interactions and thereby a less stable world.

In "international relations theory" this is reflected in Ken Waltz's argument that a bi-polar international system is much more stable than a multi-polar one. A nuclear world is unipolar only when one state has a monopoly on nuclear weapons or on a first strike capability. Absent these two conditions we have multi-polarity.


Another development in the second nuclear age is the looming renaissance in the use of nuclear energy. It would seem that growth in nuclear power will occur in both the developing and developed world. There is a clear connection between the "second nuclear age", the renaissance in nuclear energy and climate change.

This is a potentially catastrophic mix. In the words of the Pentagon report (PDF 411KB), "in this world of warring states, nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable" also "existing hydrocarbon supplies are stretched thin. With a scarcity of energy supply - and a growing need for access - nuclear energy will become a critical source of power, and this will accelerate nuclear proliferation as countries develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities to ensure their national security."

Abrupt or not, climate change will have serious consequences for the globe's carrying capacity. This will lead to greater international conflict precisely when the world is rushing headlong into a second nuclear age of proliferating nuclear weapons and nuclear technology. It is doubtful whether that other precarious species, the globe's nuclear non-proliferation regime, would be able to survive in the face of this sustained pressure.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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