Calls by scientists and others have been made for climate action to play a key role in the post-COVID-lockdown world that is slowly coming into view. These calls are critically important; no responsible government can ignore them. After warnings in recent years about the risk of a global pandemic, we should have learnt that risks don't go away simply by being ignored.
However, there is another call to action on a profound risk to humanity that has received less attention - the need to get rid of the 14,000 nuclear weapons in existence. This risk has been highlighted again this month by President Trump's discussions with senior officials of a possible resumption of US nuclear testing, a dangerous move that would break a nuclear test moratorium which has been honoured for over two decades by all nations except North Korea.
In addition, an important high-level meeting, the five-yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was scheduled to take place at the UN in New York from April 27 to May 22, has been postponed for the obvious reason until early 2021.
The NPT entered into force exactly half a century ago, in 1970, and has played a very significant role in preventing the rapid spread of nuclear weapons; currently there are just nine nuclear-armed states. At the quarter-century mark, in 1995, it was extended indefinitely, with member states reaffirming their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, a goal that is central to the treaty and yet remains unfulfilled. That failure lies at the heart of growing tensions, between the countries with the weapons and those without, that have marked the five-yearly NPT Review Conferences since 1995. Far from disarming, the nuclear-armed states are updating their arsenals.
Unlike COVID-19, roadmaps for getting rid of nuclear weapons and for addressing climate change are ready to go.
The US, followed by Russia, abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February last year, with mutual accusations of violations. In 2018 Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran. The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the last remaining treaty limiting the world's two largest nuclear arsenals (the US and Russia), is due to expire next February, with no renewal in sight.
The landscape is bleak, with one exception. In July 2017, the UN adopted a new treaty to supplement and reinforce the NPT, to stigmatize the weapons and to ramp up global pressure for disarmament - the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Unlike the NPT, the TPNW rejects any distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. The same rules apply to all nations, and the rule is zero tolerance of the world's worst weapons. Australia boycotted the whole process, arguing that the security needs of the nuclear-armed states need special consideration - a bit like special pleading for those planning genocide. Entry into force of the TPNW was expected this year but, like everything else, is now delayed.
The driver for negotiating the TPNW was the overwhelming scientific evidence of the catastrophic harm that humanity would face with any use of nuclear weapons, and the knowledge that the risk is increasing. In January this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, closer to global catastrophe than at any other time, including during the Cold War.
Against this background, the 2020 NPT Review Conference promised some heated discussions. Its postponement has spared, for now, the diplomats of the nuclear-armed states and complicit allies such as Australia some Olympic-standard verbal gymnastics in arguing, in effect, for the status quo. Australian governments consistently affirm our reliance on US nuclear weapons for "deterrence".
Australia's stance should be considered in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biological weapons have long since been stigmatised and prohibited under international law in all circumstances by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The notion of deliberately letting loose an infectious agent on other humans is repugnant. Even keeping a stockpile "just in case", with which to "deter", is both prohibited and repugnant. And yet Australia's policy, and that of every other nuclear-armed or US umbrella state, explicitly allows for the stockpiling and use of weapons that are far more destructive than a viral pandemic, and equally indiscriminate and morally objectionable.
Our "security" has been interpreted as our capacity to sufficiently terrify other humans, rather than our capacity to work together for the common good. Coronavirus reminds us that another way - co-operation rather than confrontation - is not only possible but also in our own interests. Unlike COVID-19, there would be no recovery from a nuclear war, just as there would be no turning back from runaway climate change.
We have reasons to hope. Catastrophic events seem impossible until they happen, but so too does co-operation in a seemingly hostile world. And unlike COVID-19, roadmaps for getting rid of nuclear weapons and for addressing climate change are ready to go. We're not waiting for a vaccine, but simply for governments, including our own, to learn that consistent, authoritative, increasingly alarming warnings require urgent action.
- Dr Sue Wareham, OAM, is president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) and an Australian board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.