Sixty-nine years ago, mushroom clouds rose over major population centers for the first (and fortunately, only) time in the history of warfare. At approximately 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, the Army Air Force dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. Since that week, nuclear weapons have posed a constant threat to the health and safety of the world. As John Oliver of Last Week Tonight points out, major changes are needed in America’s nuclear weapons policy.
17,000 of these weapons still exist, many on active alert and ready to be fired within minutes. Nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare since 1945. But miscalculation, technical failure, and human error have nearly caused catastrophic accidents. These risks have been strongly amplified in recent months by escalating instability in the Middle East and Ukraine, as demonstrated by the missile attack upon the Malaysian Airlines plane. How much longer are we willing to push the odds and hope that a similar incident does not involve nuclear weapons?
The use of even a minuscule fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenal would be catastrophic not only for those directly involved, but for the health and safety of the entire world. “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” a 2013 report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, outlines this risk. A “limited, regional” nuclear war between contentious neighbors India and Pakistan, involving the use of 100 Hiroshima sized nuclear weapons, would have devastating effects on the global climate. Increased amounts of soot in the atmosphere would block sunlight and cause an acute drop in global temperatures. Because of the resulting decline in food production for over ten years, up to two billion people would be at risk of starvation, and massive conflict would ensue over depleted food supplies. Therefore, the mere existence of nuclear weapons poses an unacceptable health risk to humanity.
Fortunately, the international movement to abolish nuclear weapons is building unprecedented momentum behind the Humanitarian Impact Initiative. Last October, 124 nations signed onto a statement to the UN calling for complete global nuclear disarmament, based on the intolerable human costs of these weapons. In February 2014, 146 nations — three-quarters of the nations of the world — including major US allies such as Germany and Japan, attended the second Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference in Nayarit, Mexico. A similar conference is scheduled for Vienna in December, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is up for review next May. The opportunity is ripe for a serious political and legal push toward global nuclear disarmament.
In a 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In the five years since, the United States has not followed through on this commitment, boycotting the Nayarit conference and instead planning to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on modernizing the nuclear arsenal. If President Obama truly believes the words that he spoke in Prague, then he must join the international human community by ensuring that the United States participates in the Vienna conference and supports efforts toward disarmament at the NPT conference in May 2015.
On these solemn anniversaries, we must remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the clearest illustration of the human costs of nuclear weapons. As we commemorate those who lost their lives in the atomic bombings of 1945, we must continue to work to ensure that there are no further victims of these horrific weapons. Most importantly, we must convince President Obama to keep his promise and lead the charge toward a nuclear weapons free world.