The British have the charmingly quaint expression, “for my sins,” employed as a preface or an appendix to a confession of a past they are less than proud of. So it’s in the spirit of confession I tell you I used to work in the nightmarish realm of weapons of mass destruction as a mathematical physicist back in the 1980s, specifically, the testing of nuclear weapons, for my sins. I confess it not to seek absolution, but to establish my scientific bona fides, so that what I’m about to tell you will carry somewhat more weight. When it comes to my political opinions I have been accused, as a “mere portrait painter,” of practicing journalism without a license. I wish no such objection to interfere with my credibility in what I’m about to tell you, and only wish to apologize for the fact that the subject matter is unpleasant, but not because I lack the credentials to say what I am compelled to say here.
Watching Donald Trump oafishly suggest to Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, that he could act as mediator with India and settle their territorial dispute over Kashmir, was as chilling as watching a nine year old juggling nitroglycerine. Those two nations have fought three wars with each other since 1947 and they don’t need any help fighting a fourth from Donald Trump. With over 100 nuclear missiles each, they represent two of the smaller mutually hostile nuclear powers.
Were India and Pakistan to go to war again, this time with nukes, it could prove devastating, and even fatal, to the rest of humanity. A “limited nuclear war,” that is, one where nukes are only dropped on each combatant country and nowhere else, would nevertheless encircle the earth’s atmosphere with incidental particulate matter to a height of ninety kilometers. Because it never rains at that altitude the particulate matter would remain in place for decades, blocking much of the sun’s heat and destroying crops and killing at least a billion people.
Of course, how often do wars remain limited? A full scale nuclear war, waged over the continent of Asia, for example, would probably spell the end of humanity. Noncombatants far from the conflict would die in the coming weeks and months as a consequence of nuclear winter and starvation. Life would become nasty, mean, brutish and over.
I suppose it goes without saying, and maybe that’s why it so often does go without saying, that global climate change will exacerbate tensions between hostile countries, in much the same way that hot days so often exacerbate tensions between ordinary people. When such tensions are entered into the calculations, as they occasionally are, the predictions are naive and infuriatingly linear. That is, the predictions sometimes go, say, for every half degree Celsius of increase in the average global temperature, the number of wars will increase by some rigid factor X. The problem with this is I don’t believe that increase in the likelihood of war is going to remain linear, I think it will show itself, inevitably, to be geometric, or even exponential.
Competition for resources will promote irresponsibly rash acts among world leaders on an ever-increasing schedule, and the more scarce resources become due to global warming, the more rash and irresponsible and bellicose the leaders will become. It doesn’t help that fascism is on the rise worldwide. The latest fascist to take the helm is Britain’s Boris Johnson, who recently fired most of the cabinet he inherited from Theresa May and installed hardline Brexiters. So at a time when we need unity among nations, Johnson and Trump sow division. Devotion to their corporate masters coupled with global climate change denialism, or at least, indifference, which amounts to the same thing, is their principal characteristic. It is the perfect petri dish for disaster.
Needless to say, the tensions that will naturally accrue from global climate change are helped along by division and fascism. In America, movement north by refugees from the hotter countries will escalate as temperatures rise and people begin to die as a direct result. This will frighten many people, and frightened people often turn to hardline dictators for answers. Fear is also a breeding ground for the willingness of a population to surrender its civil rights in exchange for protection. Harsh dictatorial governments will see to it that their needs are met first. They will villainize whole segments of their own population to justify genocide in order to protect themselves and their inner circles.
Meanwhile America’s House of Representatives, in the wake of the Mueller hearings, is about to go on vacation. They’ll mosey back in September and decide, after a well-earned yawn and a stretch, if they need to impeach Donald Trump. Probably not. So far only about one hundred are interested in impeachment and there is no sign of that number changing very much.
I don’t know what others were watching, but I watched both of the Mueller hearings and they filled me with rage and disgust. When many people on both sides of the aisle looked at Robert Mueller they saw a man of dignity and integrity. Not me. I saw a fool. I saw a man who, better than any of us, looked into the evil-stained heart of that desecration of abomination that crouches in the Oval Office, and chose to mumble next to nothing useful about it. Mueller was so dry and equivocal that he gave the Republicans plenty of room to dissemble. Mueller chose his words carefully to preserve the equanimity of his legacy. Well, I’m all broken up about the preservation of his legacy, but right now we have only one planet earth. And there is no planet B.
How ready we are to look at the efforts in the Munich of 1938 and pass judgment! Yet when our turn arrives how tremulous we become. If we continue to allow Donald Trump to remain in the Oval Office one second longer than we have to we will very quickly owe an apology to Neville Chamberlain. Meanwhile, we have a planet to save. Failure is not an option.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.