Last week, the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates participated in a seven-hour climate town hall, during which they shared their plans to ban fracking, halt fossil fuel exports, and nationalize energy production—ideas that were considered fringe until recently. Just seeing the words “Climate Crisis” emblazoned on the CNN town-hall stage was a clear demonstration of how far the public discourse has shifted.
The conversation revolved around the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement, a self-described “army of young people” that has organized viral actions like the November 2018 protest with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at Nancy Pelosi’s office, and the June 2019 sit-in on the steps of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The movement received some hefty praise at the town hall from the presidential candidates, many of whom specifically noted that the event would never have happened without constant activist pressure.
I am a member of the Sunrise Movement, because I am scared of the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity. But I don’t work in the climate change space, because I believe there is an even scarier—and more immediate—existential threat that receives far less attention: nuclear weapons.
In stark contrast to the seven-hour climate town hall, nuclear weapons received a measly three minutes during the July debates between 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of recent poll respondents in both Iowa and New Hampshire—the first two Democratic primaries—said they wanted to hear candidates’ views on nuclear weapons. It appears unlikely that nukes will get much airtime at tomorrow’s debate either, given their lack of consideration thus far. The attention gap between climate change and nuclear weapons doesn’t make much sense, given the common stakes, challenges, and—most importantly—solutions.
A progressive response. The Green New Deal is a progressive response to climate change, because it’s a solution commensurate with the scale of the problem. It also has a coherent vision for its implementation that is equal parts optimistic and realistic. Meanwhile, the arms control community is largely trapped in damage-control mode, valiantly resisting President Donald Trump’s efforts to build dangerous new nuclear weapons and withdraw from critical nuclear agreements. Environmentalists are playing offense, while the nuclear community is playing defense.
This raises the question: What is the progressive response to nuclear weapons?
Most progressives would argue that the answer is global zero—a nuclear-free world. However, that is a long-term solution. Just as the Green New Deal does not immediately seek a fossil-fuel-free world, a progressive nuclear policy cannot immediately seek a nuclear-free one.
This does not mean, however, that progressives should be satisfied with occasional and incremental nuclear policy tweaks. The Green New Deal resolution, introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in February 2019, eschews this approach in favor of a sweeping, justice-oriented platform. In that same vein, a progressive nuclear policy should challenge the nuclear complex in its entirety. By applying four core principles of the Green New Deal—international cooperation, reductions, transparency, and justice—to nuclear weapons, progressives can begin to craft a plan that seeks to ambitiously and coherently restructure US nuclear policy.
International cooperation. The Green New Deal aims to make the United States “the international leader on climate action.” In similar fashion, a progressive nuclear policy should seek to place the United States at the forefront of global disarmament effort—acting as an international leader in nuclear transparency, diplomacy, and reductions.
Trump has foolishly undone earlier diplomatic successes by killing off successful arms control treaties—including the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned an entire missile class—and threatening to terminate President Barack Obama’s New START, the treaty that caps US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, a progressive nuclear policy should begin by emulating and expanding upon specific policies from not only the Obama era but also from the Trump administration.
Trump’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea are a welcome improvement over Obama’s “strategic patience.” Although Trump’s methods leave much to be desired, Democrats should not let their distaste for him taint their views of diplomacy. Under a progressive nuclear policy, the United States should engage with North Korea to concurrently work toward a peace regime and a reduction of nuclear tensions.
In a similar vein, the United States should immediately end its bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and attempt to pick up the shattered pieces of the Iran nuclear deal. Both of these efforts might require targeted sanctions relief and economic inducements to convince these countries to return to the table in good faith.
With regard to other nuclear powers—particularly Russia and China—the Trump administration has embraced great-power competition and gung-ho militaristic policies that will drag the world deeper into a renewed arms race. Instead, the United States should engage with Russia in an attempt to reconstruct the INF Treaty, with both countries eventually returning to compliance; immediately extend—and try to expand—New START; pursue arrangements to reduce military tension; draw up a long-term plan to include China and other nuclear-armed states in the arms-control process; and finally ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear testing. These are necessary and realistic first steps toward the collective reduction of global nuclear arsenals and their roles in military strategy.
Finally, the Green New Deal suggests that US technological expertise can be leveraged to help other countries achieve Green New Deals of their own. This can be mirrored in the nuclear policy space. Just as the United States could become the leading exporter of renewable-energy technology, it could also become the leading exporter of disarmament expertise. A progressive nuclear policy could also emulate the “just transition” envisioned in the Green New Deal, which seeks to smoothly reorient workers toward low-carbon jobs; in the nuclear context, such a transition could result in weapons manufacturers using their expertise for disarmament—placing an emphasis on warhead dismantlement and verification, rather than on production.
Reductions. Committing to ambitious climate change goals (net-zero carbon emissions by 2050) is a critical component of the Green New Deal, and one that should also be translated to the nuclear space. For both threats, progressives must take steps to physically reduce the causes and enablers of the crisis at hand—for climate change, it’s carbon emissions; for nuclear weapons, it’s the weapons themselves. Over the next decade, the United States will spend nearly $100,000 per minute on its nuclear forces—that’s a tremendous amount of money that could otherwise be spent on priorities like infrastructure, health care, education, and fighting climate change.
First on the chopping block should be Trump’s new nukes: a planned nuclear sea-launched cruise missile akin to the one retired by the Obama administration for its lack of military utility, and a “low-yield” warhead (the name obscures the fact that it’s still one-third the size of the Hiroshima bomb that killed more than 100,000 people). These “flexible” weapons could make a nuclear strike even more tempting for military planners, making future crises all the more dangerous.
However, a progressive nuclear policy shouldn’t stop there. The current plan to replace nearly every weapon in the US nuclear arsenal was actually enshrined under the Obama administration. As experts from Global Zero have argued, the majority of these replacements are unnecessary and could be phased out under a new nuclear posture favoring minimum deterrence over warfighting. Under this new posture—and ideally alongside reductions by other nuclear-armed states—the United States should dramatically reduce its bomber and submarine forces, and completely scrap its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are irrelevant in a post-Cold-War era and are largely maintained to appease missile manufacturers and members of Congress where the missiles are based. Additionally, the United States should vow never to use nuclear weapons first—a position supported by the majority of Democrats.
The United States should also be prepared to make concessions regarding its ballistic missile defenses, which—despite being rudimentary at best and useless at worst—are key drivers of the arms race. This is because other countries, particularly Russia and China, fear that expanded US defenses might one day render their nuclear arsenals useless. Remember the scary new weapons that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled last year? They were specifically designed to circumvent US missile defenses.
In my written evidence for the UK House of Lords’ parliamentary inquiry into nuclear disarmament in February, I provided a list of unilateral and multilateral recommendations for the United States to engage Russia on missile defense, including canceling US plans to test an SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against an ICBM target next year, pausing construction of the NATO Aegis Ashore site in Poland, and creating a joint US-Russia early-warning system to assess third-party missile launches. Unless the United States takes action to address Russia’s missile defense concerns, any remaining prospects for future arms control agreements will all but disappear.
Transparency. Just as with climate change, it will be impossible to achieve progress on nuclear reductions without simultaneously addressing the key drivers of US nuclear policy decisions: money and influence. By cross-referencing the annual Don’t Bank on the Bomb report—showing which companies are involved in building missiles and nuclear weapons—and those companies’ lobbying records, it’s disturbingly easy to see how they are purchasing congressional influence by exploiting loopholes in the US political system.
Additionally, the “revolving door” between the Pentagon, Congress, think tanks, contractors, and lobbyists has been well-documented. One particularly egregious case involving “senator-turned-lobbyist-turned-senator-turned-lobbyist” Jon Kyl is emblematic of how the revolving door allows politicians to profit from their influence. Military policy should be the product of a transparent democratic process, not a shady business deal; this kind of legalized corruption should be called out and eliminated.
Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has presented a well-crafted plan to do exactly that, prohibiting lobbyists from taking government jobs (and vice versa) and subjecting all government contractors to the Freedom of Information Act. Other candidates should include similar accountability policies in their own platforms.
Very simply, a progressive nuclear policy should aim to make nuclear policy more transparent, not less. Recently, the United States has been trending in the wrong direction: Over the past year, the Pentagon has classified its nuclear stockpile numbers and its missile defense test schedule—both of which were previously available to the public. Needless over-classification allows those in power to remain unaccountable to those they claim to serve, thus entrenching unjust and undemocratic nuclear decision-making processes that can result in wastefulness, corruption, and harm.
Similarly, just as the Green New Deal seeks to strengthen democracy by ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard, a progressive nuclear weapons policy should seek to chip away at the undemocratic nature of nuclear policy. Under current policy, President Trump has unchecked authority to launch US nuclear weapons at any time—a truly frightening thought. This outdated and undemocratic posture needs to change, no matter who the president is.
Justice. Perhaps the most important line in the Green New Deal is the imperative “to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of… frontline and vulnerable communities.” This emphasis on restorative justice is what makes the Green New Deal so uniquely popular; it seeks to repair the damage done by longstanding oppressive policies. Given that patriarchal, racist, and colonial policies have all contributed to the development of the US nuclear complex, a progressive nuclear policy should echo the Green New Deal’s moral emphasis on repairing and discontinuing those harms.
Nuclear weapons have inflicted irreparable trauma upon vulnerable communities and environments—and not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much lesser-known is that part of the US nuclear complex is built upon the displacement and contamination of indigenous communities. At home, the uranium mining industry has disproportionately affected the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, and today, mining companies are lobbying a receptive Trump administration to revive uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. Abroad, US nuclear testing targeted the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted 67 tests between 1946 and 1958. In both instances, the environments have been indefinitely poisoned, and cancer rates have dramatically increased—but the communities themselves have been largely neglected by the United States.
Today, the US government provides each displaced Marshallese victim a small amount of compensation, but does not allow them to use their resettlement funds to relocate to the United States—despite the fact that, as one Marshallese nuclear survivor puts it, they are “nuclear refugees on an island affected by climate change.” The United States also has domestic “downwinder” populations living in states like Nevada, Utah, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico, who were exposed to radiation from atmospheric nuclear tests between 1951 and 1957.
Although decades of nuclear oppression can’t be reversed, the effects can certainly be mitigated. The United States should begin the process of restorative nuclear justice, offering environmental and economic reparations to frontline communities that have been most affected by nuclear weapons detonations. Although the United States has stated that it will not support or sign the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the first legally binding international agreement to ban nuclear weapons—it should certainly engage with the specific articles that mandate humanitarian assistance and environmental remediation for communities harmed by nuclear testing.
Pursuing a platform of Green New Deal-style restorative justice—as outlined in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—is not only a moral imperative but would also go a long way toward bridging the ever-widening gap between the nuclear haves and have-nots, many of whom have been so frustrated by the lack of progress on disarmament that they banned nuclear weapons entirely.
Wanted: a progressive nuclear champion. Applying the Green New Deal’s four core principles to nuclear policy yields what amounts to an ambitious, progressive nuclear revolution. Not only is it moral, just, and effective policy, it is also politically viable.
The fact that these principles directly overlap with those of the climate movement—on track to become the largest mass movement in history—is no coincidence. Young people are marching, campaigning, and—most importantly—voting for policies that are rooted in justice, above all else. And remember: The combination of Millennials and Generation Z is now the largest voting bloc in the United States, with 4 million Americans turning 18 every year.
In all likelihood, many of these young voters don’t remember Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, but the nuclear policy field does. In his remarks, Obama boldly announced that, “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” He then stated that the United States would “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”
Things didn’t work out as planned. Obama’s nuclear abolitionism was worn down by defense hawks, industry interests, policy wonks, a hostile Congress, and even some of his own political appointees, and the United States ended up with a $1.7 trillion commitment to rebuild and enhance its entire nuclear arsenal.
There’s a lesson here for progressive candidates: resist.
A progressive nuclear policy certainly won’t be easy to pull off, and anyone who champions it will become an instant enemy of the nuclear priesthood. But in a presidential race in which a list of enemies may say more about a candidate than a list of his or her friends, progressives should embrace the fear and loathing of the nuclear-industrial complex. Let the bridges they burn light their way to the Oval Office.