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The two major challenges: climate change and nuclear weapons

By Sue Wareham - posted Thursday, 22 November 2007

Here’s a family friendly election idea for both Mr Howard and Mr Rudd. Let’s save humanity from scorching or self-destruction so that our children and their children have an environment worth growing up in. You can’t get much more family friendly than that.

There are two things that directly threaten the planet as we know it. Climate change and nuclear weapons. While the first of these is receiving some long overdue attention, albeit more in rhetoric than action by the major parties, the two national leadership hopefuls are silent on the matter of 27,000 nuclear weapons.  The use of just one of these weapons could unleash cataclysmic human and environmental destruction.

As with climate change, there have been warnings enough. At the start of this year, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock forward to five minutes to midnight, stating that "We stand at the brink of a new nuclear age. Not since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices".


Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was in Australia last week to receive the Sydney Peace Prize. He said that "we must wake up to a second inconvenient truth - new build-ups of arms". Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned last year that "nuclear weapons present a unique existential threat to all humanity” and that we are "asleep at the controls of a fast-moving aircraft".

And the list of those calling for nuclear weapons abolition goes on. However it is no longer confined to the usual suspects, but reads more and more like a who’s who of Cold War hawks, including Kissinger, Schultz and McNamara, who have come to realize that nuclear weapons will spread unless they are abolished. There is also the growing realization that these weapons have not prevented wars, but have merely made them more perilous. Robert McNamara, former US Defense Secretary, speaks from his in-depth experience of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when he says that we were "a hair’s breadth from absolute disaster" during that time.

The silence from Howard and Rudd on the issue of nuclear weapons is alarming, especially given the recent performances of the erstwhile Cold War enemies. In August Russian President Putin resumed 24 hours a day long-range strategic bomber flights, and he has compared tensions over US plans for a missile shield in Europe to the 1962 missile crisis.

At the UN last month, our ally the US achieved the singular distinction of voting against every resolution on nuclear disarmament. Perhaps most urgent of all the resolutions was the call for the US and Russia to take thousands of their weapons off hair trigger alert, a status that leaves open the possibility of accidental launch. 124 countries voted in favour, and 3 against (the US, the UK and France). Australia, in top form with its concern for weapons of mass destruction, abstained.

Meanwhile as nuclear-armed Pakistan heads in the direction of political chaos, the fate of its nuclear arsenal is anybody’s guess. And the US (nuclear arsenal approximately 10,000 weapons) threatens military action against Iran (nuclear arsenal zero), with no hint of awkward embarrassment about having caused way more than enough trouble in the region already.

The warnings are stark. The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons stated in 1996 that the proposition that nuclear weapons could be retained indefinitely and never used "defies credibility". Blix’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission repeated the message last year. Nuclear catastrophe is inevitable - unless we act to prevent it.


Urgent action on nuclear weapons is a winner for any political party in Australia. Opinion polls in Australia and around the world show that an overwhelming majority of people want nuclear weapons abolished. It was Australians who initiated ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was launched by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in April this year.

On 14 August, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Robert McClelland outlined a future Labor government’s support for the ICAN goal of a Nuclear Weapons Convention to outlaw these most terrifying of all weapons. While the nature and strength of that support remains to be seen, this was an extremely welcome announcement. A treaty to ban nuclear weapons is strongly supported by the Democrats and the Greens. All political parties need to step up to one of the greatest challenges of our age.

As with climate change, precious time has been lost by governments ignoring or denying the problem. Australia has been missing in action.

Australian families deserve a government that puts their future above the interests of the fossil fuel industries and the nuclear weapons states. Unless Australia changes direction, we may be leaving our children little more than a scorched nuclear wasteland.

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About the Author

Dr Sue Wareham is a Canberra GP who joined the Medical Association for Prevention of War out of a "horror at the destructive capacity of a single nuclear weapon". She has many interests and fields of expertise, including the contribution of peace to global sustainability. Sue believes that her work with MAPW is fundamental to her commitment to the protection of human life and the improvement of human well-being. She is Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia); and on the Australian Management Committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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Energy Science
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
Medical Association for Prevention of War

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