On World Environment Day, We Need to Talk About Weapons

The long-term environmental damage that highly-destructive weapons cause persists for years and impacts different life forms.

Representative image: The GBU-43/B, also known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, detonates during a test at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida, US, November 21, 2003. Credit: Reuters/US Air Force photo/Handout via Reuters

Representative image: The GBU-43/B, also known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, detonates during a test at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida, US, November 21, 2003. Credit: Reuters/US Air Force photo/Handout via Reuters

While extreme weather events all over the world in recent years have indicated that climate change catastrophes may be a part of our life sooner than expected, the response from global leadership has been far from perfect. Under US President Donald Trump and others, the commitment at the global level for climate change mitigation and adaption now appears to be much weaker than before.

On the positive side, this year’s Earth Day (April 22) celebrations focused on improving climate literacy, so that more people can be involved in climate change-related issues. However, to meet critical targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, firm commitments at the leadership level are essential. On the other hand, the tendency to use weapons of mass destruction appears to be increasing, as recent tragic events in Afghanistan, Syria and the Korean peninsula have demonstrated so clearly.

While highly-destructive weapons have been discussed mainly in the context of their capacity to kill or injure people immediately, what can be even more harmful in the case of some weapons is the longer-term damage persisting for many, many years for all life forms. To give just one example, depleted uranium weapons have been used widely in recent years, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Longer-term impacts of these have been seen for several years, with an increase in leukemia and other kinds of cancer, as well as children being born with deformities and being highly susceptible to diseases. A sealed report prepared by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (later published in the Independent newspaper) described the alarming possibilities of radioactive dust getting into the food chain and water. This report said that 40 tonnes of radioactive debris left from depleted uranium weapons can cause around half a million deaths.

Living conditions can be destroyed for a very long period of time by using such weapons. The impact on life forms other than humans could be no less devastating, although this is being callously ignored. The longer-term impact of full-blown nuclear weapons is, of course, likely to be even more devastating. It has already been observed in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but any future use of nuclear weapons is likely to involve the use of much more destructive bombs and hence the adverse impacts not just in terms of loss of life but also the grave harm to life-sustaining conditions cannot be imagined.

As things stand today, the challenge to life-sustaining conditions on Earth from climate change and related factors is so serious and difficult to tackle that we should not even think of compounding the survival crisis by accumulating and using, or threatening to use, nuclear, depleted uranium and other such highly-destructive weapons. Yet the accumulation and use of highly-destructive weapons has been increasing. This is a reflection on the lack of adequate will or capacity of the world leadership to attend to high-priority tasks. This is likely to prove extremely costly in the near future.

When the UN secretary general’s high-level panel on global sustainability reviewed climate change mitigation data, it said that despite all the agreements and conferences on this issue, annual global carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion grew by about 38% between 1990 and 2009, with the rate of growth after 2000 faster than in the 1990s.

This panel has also drawn attention to the work of a group of scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on a framework of planetary boundaries. These scientists have said that once human activity has passed certain thresholds or tipping points, defined as planetary boundaries, there is a risk of irreversible and abrupt environmental change.

Nine such boundaries have been identified by these scientists. They have stated that human activities appear to have already transgressed the boundaries associated with climate change, rate of biodiversity loss and changes in the global nitrogen cycle. Further, the world may soon be approaching the boundaries for interference with the global phosphorus cycle, global freshwater use, ocean acidification and global change of land use. These scientists have also emphasised the strong inter-linkages among these various boundaries, so crossing one affects another.

This appears to be in keeping in with the results of an earlier study involving several leading environmentalists coordinated by Edward Goldsmith, founder editor of the The Ecologist. This study, done for MIT, was published under the appropriate title ‘Imperiled Planet’. The study concluded, “The danger is that we have gone beyond simply damaging ecosystems and now we are disrupting the very processes that keep the earth a fit place for higher forms of life.”

Isn’t it the time for a wake-up call, for wider and more sustained and vigorous efforts by citizens to save and protect all forms of life on Earth before it is too late?

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.