Will Obama Make Good on His Promise to Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Warfare?
As President Obama prepares for his final State of the Union address tonight, there's one critical issue he has neglected over the last few years that bears revisiting: the nuclear threat, which—along with climate change—poses the biggest risk to the future of the planet.
Fortunately, there are a number of things the president can still do to strengthen international security that would not require him to go through Congress or negotiate with Russia. And taking such executive action would not be out of the ordinary. Indeed, Obama's Republican predecessors, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both made significant unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
According to Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Obama could begin tonight by making four related announcements about U.S. nuclear policy. First, he could declare that the U.S. will take its land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, abandoning a dangerous, outdated Cold War policy that increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch. Second, he could cancel a proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile that would likely lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons. Third, he could cut U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads by a third. And fourth, he could declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies, which would fulfill his promise to reduce the role such weapons play in U.S. policy.
None of these steps would compromise U.S. security. On the contrary, they would not only save U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, they would also make the U.S.—and the rest of the world—a much safer place.
Obama's Promising Start
President Obama actually addressed the nuclear issue right out of the starting gate. Just a few months after taking office, he gave a widely acclaimed speech in Prague on reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons. "The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War," he said. "And as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it." He then cited some of the "concrete steps" the U.S. would take "toward a world without nuclear weapons."
A year later, in April 2010, he was back in Prague to follow through with one of his promised concrete steps: to sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, further cutting both countries arsenals and reinstituting a strict verification system that the Bush Administration had allowed to lapse. But since then, Obama has not been able to accomplish much else, despite his high hopes. In fact, it seems that his administration is going in the wrong direction. As I reported last August, it wants the U.S. government to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
So, let's examine Obama's options to reduce the nuclear threat a bit more carefully.
Take U.S. Land-Based ICBMs Off Hair-Trigger Alert
Since the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. has been keeping its land-based ICBMs in a state of readiness that allows them to be launched within minutes, at least in part to avoid having them destroyed by a surprise nuclear attack. At this point, however, it is highly unlikely Russia would launch a massive first strike and no other country is capable of doing so. What's more likely is an accidental, erroneous or unauthorized ICBM launch in response to a false attack warning, triggered either by a technical glitch or a human error. In fact, there have been a number of incidents of both kinds in Russia and the U.S. over the last few decades that could have prompted a nuclear launch.
Obama acknowledged the risks posed by this outmoded policy even before he moved into the White House. "Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War," Obama said in an interview published by Arms Control Today in September 2008. "Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation."
Obama is not alone in that assessment. A number of former secretaries of state and retired high-ranking military officers, including former commanders of the U.S. Strategic Command and the Navy's nuclear submarine fleet, agree.
Cancel the Long-Range Standoff Missile
The Obama Administration has proposed developing a new, stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missile, dubbed the long-range standoff (LRSO) missile, to replace the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which is due for retirement in 2030. The Air Force plans to buy 1,000 to 1,100 of these new missiles—roughly double the 572 ALCMs now in its stockpile—with a price tag of $20 billion to $30 billion.
The new missile would be faster, more accurate and longer-range than the current model. And that's not good, says Young, the UCS analyst. Why? Because, he says, it will make it easier for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons.
By being more "usable," the proposed LRSO missile would increase the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy by lowering the threshold for when the U.S. might consider using one. And that would signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. believes nuclear weapons retain significant war-fighting value. That's not a message the U.S. should be sending.
"The bottom line," Young says, "is the proposed missile would not enhance our security. In fact, it would do the exact opposite."
Reduce the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal by a Third
Obama should cut the 1,550 long-range nuclear weapons the U.S. currently deploys to 1,000, a third lower than the number negotiated with the Russians under the New START arms control agreement. After all, he plainly stated in a June 2013 speech that such a reduction is eminently feasible.
"After a comprehensive [Pentagon] review," Obama said during a trip to Germany, "I've determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third."
According to Young, New START verification procedures would be able to substantiate such a reduction without requiring a new treaty; a smaller nuclear force would save U.S. taxpayers tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars; and, despite its aggressive actions in Ukraine, Russia would likely follow suit and reduce its arsenal, especially given its ongoing financial crisis.
"Some nuclear proponents may argue that reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal could embolden Russia," Young says. "But cutting 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 1,000 would have no effect on nuclear deterrence whatsoever and save resources for higher priorities."
Define the Purpose of U.S. Nuclear Weapons
In 2010, the Pentagon issued a report that defined the goals for U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture for the following five to 10 years. Called the Nuclear Posture Review, it stated: "The U.S. will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the U.S. and our allies the sole purpose of U.S nuclear weapons."
Obama should make that "objective" official policy.
The Nuclear Posture Review listed "a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the U.S. or its allies and partners" for countries that either have nuclear weapons or are not in compliance with their nonproliferation agreements.
Young says that "narrow range of contingencies" is shortsighted.
"Giving nuclear weapons a role beyond deterring a nuclear attack is unnecessary and downright dangerous," he says. "Nuclear weapons don't add to the deterrence the overwhelmingly superior U.S. conventional forces already provide against a non-nuclear attack or the U.S.' ability to respond to such an attack. And if the U.S. considers nuclear weapons to be 'usable,' that could encourage other countries to try to join the nuclear club."
The U.S. should strengthen—not undermine—the international consensus against the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Declaring that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons only to deter a nuclear attack is one way to do that.
Obama at the Finish Line
In October 2009, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely due to his efforts to promote nuclear disarmament. Shortly after learning he had won the prize, he held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden.
"I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century," he told reporters. "We cannot tolerate a world in which nuclear weapons spread to more nations and in which the terror of a nuclear holocaust endangers more people. And that's why we've begun to take concrete steps to pursue a world without nuclear weapons: because all nations have the right to pursue peaceful nuclear power, but all nations have the responsibility to demonstrate their peaceful intentions."
It's been more than six years since Obama made that statement and there is plenty left to do. But the president can still heed that call to action by taking a few more concrete steps before he leaves office. Tonight's State of the Union address would be a good place to start.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›