The Climate-Nuclear Nexus

The Climate-Nuclear Nexus



While humanity faces a range of interconnected transnational threats and crises in the 21st Century—including extreme poverty, hunger, pandemic disease and demographic change—climate change and the continued existence of nuclear weapons stand out as the two principal threats to the survival of humanity. On the long arc of human existence, both threats are relatively new to the scene, having only appeared over the last century. Both threaten the survival of life on earth as we know it and both are of our making.

The original report was released in November 2015, in time for the Paris Climate Change Conference. It was updated in April 2016 to reflect the outcomes of that conference as well as include updates on climate change litigation.

Climate-Nuclear Nexus

“The threats to our planet – of climate change, poverty and war – can only be overcome by nations and the global community working in cooperation – something not possible while nations maintain large and expensive militaries and threaten to destroy each other.” – PNND Co-President’s statement on International Women’s Day for Disarmament, May 24, 2008

The second project is an extensive study of the linkages between climate change and nuclear security conducted for the World Future Council by Disarmament Working Group member Prof. Dr. Jürgen Scheffran of the University of Hamburg. Prof. Dr. Scheffran’s Report Climate Change, Nuclear Risks and Nuclear Disarmament: From Security Threats to Sustainable Peace lays bare the important connections between the two perils, reframes the debate on both issues and offers a comprehensive approach to move from living with these security threats to building sustainable peace. You can download the Report here.

The climate-nuclear nexus manifests itself in a number of ways.

Natural disasters and climate change-induced extreme weather events can have grave implications for nuclear security and safety

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March 2011 has drawn attention to the possible effects of extreme weather events, environmental degradation and seismic activity on nuclear security and safety. A number of other recent natural disasters have demonstrated how extreme weather events and environmental degradation can directly cause severe threats for nuclear safety and security.

  • The wildfires that spread through Russia in the summer of 2010 posed a severe nuclear risk to the country when they were on their way to engulf key nuclear sites. In addition, there was widespread concern that radionuclides from land contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster could rise together with combustion particles, resulting in a new pollution zone. Luckily, the authorities managed to contain the fires in time.
  • In Pakistan, the climate-nuclear nexus becomes particularly apparent. Past natural disasters have heightened anxieties about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear sites and military installations. So far, nuclear sites in the extreme weather-prone country have remained safe, yet concern exists about the possible damage from future natural disasters, as well as the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and materials during such events.
  • The events in Japan earlier this year have demonstrated the potential catastrophic consequences of natural disasters for nuclear security. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the country on 11 March 2011 caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, disabling the reactor cooling systems and triggering a widespread evacuation surrounding the plant. The nuclear crisis is still unfolding and it will be decades before a comprehensive impact assessment of the disaster can be made.
  • In the UK, leading geologist Prof. Rob Duck of Dundee University has warned that if climate change continues it may lead to the erosion of Britain’s coast and may even cause tsunamis. This in turn will have critical implications for the safety of Britain’s nuclear power stations, all but one of which lie on the coast.

The climatic and ecological consequences of nuclear war

Recent research has revealed that even a limited regional nuclear exchange would eject so much debris into the atmosphere that it could cool down the planet to temperatures not felt since the ice ages (“nuclear winter”) and significantly disrupt the global climate for years to come. Huge fires caused by nuclear explosions, in particular from burning cities, would lift massive amounts of dark smoke and aerosol particles into the upper parts of the atmosphere where the absorption of sunlight would further heat the smoke and lift it into the stratosphere. Here the smoke could persist for years and block out much of the sun’s light from reaching the earth’s surface, causing surface temperatures to drop drastically. This would have disastrous implications for agriculture, and threaten the food supply for most of the planet. It has been estimated that as a result up to one billion people could die from starvation.

Conflicts due to climate change can trigger the use of nuclear weapons

Recently, attention has also been drawn to the severe security risks of global warming. The fear concentrates on how large-scale cascading events in the climate system could lead to international instability. Conflicts due to climate change can trigger the use of nuclear weapons.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that climate change may pose as much of a danger to the world as war. In April 2007, the UN Security Council held its first debate on climate change indicating that global warming has elevated to the top of the international security agenda, rivalling the threat of war. In a 2008 report, the European Commission noted that “[c]limate change is best viewed as a threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions and instability. The core challenge is that climate change threatens to overburden states and regions which are already fragile and conflict prone.”

Nuclear weapons represent a particularly worrying element in this volatile equation. International destabilization resulting from climate change could provoke conflicts, which, in turn, could enhance the chance of a nuclear weapon being used, could create more fertile breeding grounds of terrorism, including the nuclear kind, and could feed the ambitions among some states to acquire nuclear arms.

If climate change is a threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions and instability, then nuclear weapons are capable of raising the stakes exponentially.

Nuclear energy is no solution to fossil energy dependence and global warming

Nuclear power is fraught with security risks and a variety of other problems. Firstly, radioactive materials are released and accumulated at each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, while errors and accidents during the generation process further contribute to the threat of radioactive contamination.

Secondly, nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons development. So far, about one-third of the countries using nuclear power have built nuclear weapons. At various stages of the nuclear fuel chain, transitions to nuclear weapons technology are possible, contributing to the danger of their worldwide proliferation. A serious problem is the civil-military ambivalence of nuclear technologies and facilities involved in the production and processing of weapons-grade materials. These include uranium enrichment, fuel production and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Around 20 countries already have access to such technologies. This trend would increase with a further global expansion of nuclear energy.

The global inventory of highly enriched uranium totals around 1600 tons, while the global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 500 tons, divided almost equally between civilian and military stocks. One hundred tons of plutonium is theoretically sufficient for up to 20,000 nuclear warheads. With increasing civilian use, the amount of plutonium also tends to increase. The difficulty in distinguishing between civilian and military nuclear ambitions remains a source for discrimination, threat, mistrust and fear in international relations.

Thirdly, even a drastic increase in nuclear energy could not compensate for the current growth in energy consumption; it would come too late for preventing climate change and lead to an enormous increase in plutonium stocks, with all its aforementioned problems.

Fourthly, although nuclear power has been heavily subsidised by governments and external costs are still not internalised into its market price, nuclear energy is not commercially competitive compared to advanced renewable energies that receive similar financial support. In a comprehensive environmental and economic assessment, including external costs from waste disposal, uranium mining, fuel processing and radioactive emissions during normal operations, most renewable energy sources look better than nuclear energy.

Finally, nuclear waste disposal (whether from nuclear power production, nuclear weapons programs or nuclear disarmament) will remain a problem for thousands of years, and many future generations will have to bear this load without having the short-term “benefit” of the current generation. To decay half of the amount of plutonium 239, which is the primary fissile isotope used for the production of nuclear weapons, it takes around 24000 years or 1000 human generations, much longer than the known history of homo sapiens. After decades of nuclear energy production, the pile of nuclear waste is still growing, even though worldwide not a single site for final disposal of spent fuels is operating and temporary storage is continuously being extended. It is uncertain whether and when a responsible solution to the long-term disposal of radioactive waste can be found.

Peaceful and Just Societies: A Key Factor in Financing for Sustainable Development



As the Third Conference on Financing for Development (FFD) in Addis Ababa sets out to resolve the challenges of development financing, the World Future Council and the International Peace Bureau, with the endorsement of other civil society organizations, take this opportunity to outline their position and present recommendations. They put a particular focus on peace as a Sustainable Development Goal, and will address the financing shortfall, focusing on the Domestic Public Finance aspect of resource mobilization.

Full Report

The Climate-Nuclear Nexus: Two Key Threats Endangering Future Generations

Over the next two weeks, Heads of States are meeting in Paris to finally agree on a plan to curb climate change. Considering that climate change can exacerbate a range of interconnected transnational threats and crises that our generation faces today, such as extreme poverty, hunger, violent conflicts and pandemic disease, meaningful action is urgently needed.

Despite this, the proposed measures are again nowhere near proportional to the problem. In fact, the climate negotiations have so far been subjected to lack of information and misguidance on so-called solutions that should enable us to limit the rise in temperatures to 2°C. One particular problem is that too many of the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) still build on nuclear energy as a way for low-carbon development.

This is extremely problematic given that increased reliance on nuclear energy to reduce carbon emissions will contribute to the risks of nuclear proliferation. In these crucial times, current instabilities and geopolitical tensions are an important dynamic to consider. The increasingly aggressive nuclear threat postures between Russia and NATO in Europe, the rising nuclear tensions between China and US allies in the South China sea, and the excessive expenditures (over US$100 billion annually) on nuclear weapons consume resources required and undermine conditions conducive for tackling climate change in a cooperative manner. Further proliferation of nuclear weapons would make this even worse.

Climate change and the continued existence of nuclear weapons stand out as the two principal threats to the survival of humanity. On the long arc of human existence, both threats are relatively new to the scene, having only appeared over the last century. However, both threaten the survival of life on earth as we know it and both are of our making.

Jonathan Schell said it best: “Anyone concerned by the one should be concerned with the other. It would be a shame to save the Earth from slowly warming only to burn it up in an instant in a nuclear war.”

Nuclear energy is neither required for nor capable of solving the climate crisis. Nuclear energy lacks the capacity potential to significantly replace the huge amounts of fossil energy. In addition, the nuclear ‘fuel chain’ contains a variety of problems and risks, including the release of radioactive materials at every stage of the cycle and trans-generational safety problems from nuclear waste disposal. A very serious problem is the possibility, at various stages of the nuclear fuel chain, to divert nuclear technologies and know-how towards nuclear weapons development.

As the Word Future Council has highlighted in a recent report, climate change and nuclear weapons interact with each other in additional ways. Conflicts induced or exacerbated by climate change could contribute to global insecurity, which, in turn, could enhance the chance of a nuclear weapon being used, could create more fertile breeding grounds for terrorism, including nuclear terrorism, and could feed the ambitions among some states to acquire nuclear arms. Furthermore, as evidenced by a series of incidents in recent years, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and major seismic events can directly impact the safety and security of nuclear installations. Moreover, a nuclear war could lead to a rapid and prolonged drop in average global temperatures and significantly disrupt the global climate for years to come, which would have disastrous implications for agriculture, threatening the food supply for most of the world. Finally, climate change, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy pose threats of intergenerational harm, as evidenced by the transgenerational effects of nuclear testing and nuclear power accidents and the lasting impacts on the climate, environment and public health from carbon emissions.

Overall, the discrepancy between long-term goals and concrete steps undermines the conditions for international cooperation in security and climate policies. Despite growing awareness of the urgency of tackling the climate and nuclear threat among policy-makers, academics and civil society, concrete action is lagging behind.

Why is this so, when considering that renewable energy technologies provide viable alternatives? By harnessing local renewable energy sources, jurisdictions increase their political and energy independency, while the degree of local and international cooperation needed to transition to 100% Renewable Energy can act as a catalyst for cooperation in tackling other transnational security threats. This helps solving geopolitical crises, avoid future armed conflicts triggered by climate instability and resource scarcity, and build cooperative security mechanisms. Similarly, regional initiatives could attempt to tackle both climatic and security threats. For example, Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (which already cover the entire Southern Hemisphere) can, in turn, promote regional environmental and climate protection policies, as exemplified by the Antarctic Treaty System. Such action could also be sought in the Arctic, where the effects of climate change and the dangers of nuclear weapons come together as increased competition over resources and the opening up of routes for military maneuvering and posturing, including with nuclear weapons, can heighten tensions between the region’s powers.

Finally, there exist international legal obligations both with regard to curbing climate change and achieving universal nuclear disarmament. It is thus not surprising that on both fronts, litigation has been pursued to ensure these obligations are implemented. Climate cases have been filed in several countries, including in the Netherlands, where the Court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, noting that the State has a legal obligation to protect its citizens, ordering the Dutch government to reduce its CO2 emissions by a minimum of 25% (compared to 1990) by 2020. On the nuclear front, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed applications last year in the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear-armed states (US, UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea), claiming that they are in breach of obligations relating to nuclear disarmament under the NPT and under customary international law. Cases are proceeding against the three of the nuclear-armed states that have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ–the UK, India, and Pakistan.

For the people of the Marshall Islands, and a rising number of people in other parts of the world, the effects of these two threats are not a theoretical, future issue of concern. Behind the facts and figures are stories of real suffering from climate change and nuclear weapons programmes.

The plight of one group in particular is illustrative of the human impact of the nuclear enterprise and climate change. The inhabitants of the remote Pacific island chain of Bikini Atoll were forced from their homes in the 1940s so that the United States could test its atomic bombs there, bringing with it a legacy of transgenerational effects of radiation exposure, including high cancer rates, birth deformities and environmental poisoning. The lands they had called home were declared uninhabitable. Now, the tiny patches of earth they were relocated to in the Marshall Islands are at risk of suffering the same fate, as rising sea levels are breaching sea walls, washing over their islands, killing crops and forcing the Bikini Atoll refugees to consider relocating again–this time to foreign continents thousands of miles away. As if to underline the potentially catastrophic convergence of both perils, there is even the danger that rising sea levels could spill the radioactive waste from testing, which has been stored on the islands, into the ocean. Their experience should serve as a cautionary tale. If we don’t seize the opportunities soon to rid the world of these threats, we will drift toward a similar fate.

The World Future Council has been highlighting how climate change and nuclear weapons interact with each other through its ‘Climate-Nuclear Nexus’ project. Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tony deBrum, received together with the People of the Marshall Islands the Honorary Right Livelihood Award on 30 November for initiating litigation in the International Court of Justice to ensure the nuclear-armed states uphold their disarmament obligations.

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Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina share best policies for reducing gun violence

Sarajevo/Buenos Aires, March 11 – Experts from Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina have joined forces to discuss the challenges, prospects and lessons learnt of their respective disarmament programmes. On March 6-7, representatives of government, police agencies, and civil society were brought together by the World Future Council and UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina to exchange experiences in addressing small arms issues.

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Arms control exchange: from Argentina to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Argentina are culturally, linguistically and geographically diverse nations. However, both are fighting to realise change and bring about a new direction in their country’s development.

Over 750,000 illicit weapons and 16,000 tonnes of ammunition currently circulate within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Easy access to weapons largely left over from the conflict in the 90’s has led to these circulating remnants of war being involved in more than 10 violent incidents each week.

Argentina too has also faced risks caused by the availability of guns and a lack of gun violence education. In 2004, a 15 year old boy killed three classmates in Southern Argentina, wounding five. It is clear that despite their many evident differences, firearm awareness actions needs to be taken to curb the blight of gun violence in both nations for future generations.

“Tragedies caused by guns and other small arms are nearly a daily occurrence. Without the widespread availability of these weapons such tragedies could not occur. Further, guns can play no positive role in resolving conflicts or achieving reconciliation between conflicting parties. Resolving conflicts requires peaceful processes, including negotiations and diplomacy. Peace cannot be attained by either random or targeted killings – thus, the importance of disarmament, gun control and a non-killing ethic.” – David Krieger WFC Councillor & President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

The Campaign

As part of our follow-up activities to the 2013 Future Policy Award on Disarmament, on March 6-7, the World Future Council together with UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovinas ‘Choose Life Without Weapons‘ coalition provided an opportunity for governmental entities from Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina to come together to exchange their experiences in combating the blight of the small arms and light weapons within their unique national contexts.

A conference at UN House in Sarajevo on 6 March allowed participants to share lessons learnt from their arms control programmes, while a visit to Banja Luka on 7 March gave participants the chance to witness and participate in the melting of collected weapons, which are then recycled to manufacture spare parts for windmills and other public infrastructure.

In 2013, Argentina’s ‘National Programme for the Voluntary Surrender of Firearms’ was recognised with a Silver Future Policy Award by the World Future Council, in collaboration with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Under the programme, the governmental agency RENAR has successfully collaborated with civil society in reducing the number of illicit firearms while promoting a culture more focused on non-violence and peaceful conflict resolution.

Kick-off event – Sarajevo, June 14

The kick-off event in Sarajevo included the screening of the documentary Football Rebels and the football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Argentina later that evening.


b9ddfa9640Choose life without weapons was launched in 2013 by UNDP, and their partners, to prompt action and open discourse over the issue of gun violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The campaign encourages citizens to take advantage of an amnesty law allowing weapons and explosive devices to be handed over to the police without legal repercussions. Collected weapons are then melted and recycled into components for infrastructural development across the country.

Argentina similarly encouraged sustainable action against armed violence through the formation of The Argentine Disarmament Network, a coalition of civil society organisations attempting to tackle armed violence.

Nuclear disarmament in the international legal framework

Since the beginning of the Nuclear Age, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament have been officially recognized by all States as critical goals. The United Nations General Assembly’s first ever resolution – adopted on 24 January 1946 – set forth the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and other weapons “adaptable to mass destruction.” In 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which stated the hope that “measures leading towards the goal of general and complete disarmament under effective international control will be worked out in detail and agreed upon in the shortest possible time.” At its first Special Session on Disarmament in 1978, the General Assembly declared “general and complete disarmament” the international community’s “ultimate objective,” and proclaimed nuclear disarmament its “highest priority.”

Article VI of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) affirms that all States Parties should undertake “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

In its 1996 landmark Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, the International Court of Justice (ICJ)—the UN’s highest judicial authority—interpreted this article as entailing “an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Following up on the ICJ Opinion, the UN General Assembly has adopted every year beginning in 1996 a resolution calling upon all States immediately to fulfill the disarmament obligation unanimously affirmed by the ICJ by commencing multilateral negotiations “leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.” In 2010, the resolution was adopted by a vote of 133 to 28, with 23 abstentions, the most support hitherto.

Similarly, the 2000 UN General Assembly Resolution, Towards a Nuclear Weapon-Free World: The Need for a New Agenda, “calls upon the Nuclear-Weapon States to make an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the speedy and total elimination of their nuclear arsenals and to engage without delay in an accelerated process of negotiations, thus achieving nuclear disarmament, to which they are committed under article VI of the NPT.” It received overwhelming support with 154 in favor (including China, the United Kingdom and the United States), 3 against, and 8 abstentions.

The commitment to nuclear disarmament has been echoed in numerous other UN resolutions and international treaties. It has also been reiterated in the consensus final documents of NPT Review Conferences, including quite forcefully in the most recent one. Even the UN Security Council—which counts the recognized Nuclear Weapon States under the NPT as its permanent members—adopted in 2009 a Resolution, which calls upon all States to undertake in good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament, and invites non NPT-parties to “join the endeavor.”

The Bread Tank at the World Youth Day 2013

Future Policy Award 2013: Celebrating the World’s best Disarmament Policies


Disarmament is vital to achieving crucial peace, development and security goals. The 2013 Future Policy Award celebrates policies that have distinctly advanced sustainable disarmament.

This year, 25 policies from 15 countries and six regions were nominated. As well as representing all continents, the policies display the diversity of the disarmament theme, targeting small arms and light weapons, nuclear weapons, cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines, among others.


Treaty of Tlatelolco Wins Future Policy Award

Latin American and Caribbean Nuclear Weapons Free Zone takes top disarmament award – Argentina and New Zealand win silver

Hamburg/Geneva/New York – 23 October 2013: The “Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean” (a.k.a. the “Treaty of Tlatelolco”) was today proclaimed winner of the 2013 Future Policy Award for sustainable disarmament, beating 24 other nominated policies to the prize. The award will be presented at a ceremony this evening at UN Headquarters by the World Future Council, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

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