Nuclear near-miss a chilling portend of our climate future

Below, my article as it appears in the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine. I’ve included links to watch the film in its entirety, as well as the subsequent ABC studio discussion. A third of a century later, it’s still strangely gripping and, in the light of all that has happened in world politics in the last year or so, in the words of Yogi Berra, it feels like déjà vu all over again.


ON THE NIGHT of November 20th, 1983, US network ABC aired a made-for-TV film entitled ‘The Day After’. By some estimates, around 100 million people sat down to watch the film, which dramatized the build up to and the immediate aftermath of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

It must have made it to RTÉ sometime shortly afterwards, as I vividly recall watching it and being transfixed by the terrifying transformation of the familiar into the ruined, order into chaos, and the overwhelming feeling of individual helplessness in the face of such an unspeakable calamity.

I was not alone. US president Ronald Reagan sat through the entire film, while his joint chiefs of staff held a private screening before it aired on TV and Reagan wrote in his White House diary that the film had “greatly depressed” him. History records that, shortly afterwards, Reagan held a series of summits with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss reducing the massive nuclear stockpiles on both sides.

The resulting INF treaty led to the destruction of over 2,500 nuclear warheads (many were converted for civilian use by being dismantled and their cores burned to generate nuclear energy). Film director Nicholas Myer related in recent years: “Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris said to me that the only time he saw Ronald Reagan become upset was after they screened ‘The Day After’, and he just went into a funk”. Reagan had, after all, come to power in 1981 as a military hawk, arguing that the best way for the US to end the Cold War was to win it.

In the atomised multi-screen media landscape of 2017, it’s hard even imagine a time existed when not just whole families but entire nations sat down together to watch the same broadcast, and when a fictionalised account like this had the power to both grip the public imagination and sway the political discourse.

Immediately after the film was aired ABC went to debate the issues raised with a high-powered panel comprising politicians, scientists, philosophers and military experts in front of a live studio audience. Opening the discussion, ABC presenter Ted Koppel intoned: “There is – and you probably need it about now – there is some good news. If you can, take a quick look out the window. It’s all still there. Your neighbourhood is still there. So is Kansas City, and Lawrence, and Chicago”.

All this extraordinary reaction was, lest we forget, over a made-for-TV drama, one that set out, according to its director, to deliberately be as banal as possible. “It’s about people going shopping. It snuck into the back door of the national consciousness in this sort of innocuous way, because it wasn’t preaching to the people who were already saying, oh my god, this is happening, let’s put our head into the oven”, recalled Nicholas Myers. “No! It took the people by surprise that it showed them: this, this, this is what’s waiting if you don’t do something, if you don’t take charge, if you don’t become involved, if you don’t protest.”

What seems even more extraordinary is that, some 34 years after that broadcast, and having seemingly stepped back from the brink of nuclear suicide, we now find ourselves in a situation where the person who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal has expressed his frustration at not being able to use these weapons and has casually and repeatedly threatened to “totally destroy” a country and its population of 26 million people.

One of the panellists on that ABC show was physicist Dr Carl Sagan, who calmly explained that the reality of a nuclear war, even a limited exchange, would in fact be vastly worse than the grisly portrayal in ‘The Day After’. “The ‘nuclear winter’ that will follow even a small nuclear war…would reduce the temperatures pretty much globally to sub-freezing temperatures for months…agriculture will be wiped out…there’s a real possibility of the extinction of the human species”.

The famous Doomsday Clock has been maintained for the last 70 years since its launch in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It has tracked over the decades as events drew the world closer to or further from obliteration.

Little could those scientists back in the 1940s have realised that while the shadow of nuclear catastrophe would still darken the second decade of the 21st century, it would in fact be eclipsed by an even more pervasive threat – that of wide-scale climate collapse.

What makes this danger so insidious is that for the very worst to happen no longer depends on the actions of a crazed dictator or a mentally unhinged leader of a nuclear-armed democracy. This time, global catastrophe is simply a matter of humanity continuing on its current track.

In January last, the Bulletin declared that the Doomsday Clock had moved forward to two and a half minutes to midnight, its most dangerous position since the early 1950s. “Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats – nuclear weapons and climate change.”

It is almost certain that the clock will lurch even closer to midnight when set again in January 2018. “President Trump’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse”, they wrote.

That statement, bear in mind, was issued just days after he took office, and well before he took a Twitter-powered wrecking ball to international nuclear and climate diplomacy.

In a world in which anthropogenic climate change is an even more intractable threat than nuclear war, it is richly ironic that the Bulletin singles out nuclear energy as a potentially vital part of a global rapid decarbonisation effort.

In recent years, climate communicators have, by and large, striven to accentuate the positive, the feeling being that negative messaging was turning people off. This habit has even spread to the scientific community, which earlier this year collectively poured scorn on a ground-breaking extended article in ‘New York’ magazine entitled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’.

Yet, the article was deeply grounded in science, and was based on interviews with many of the world’s top climatologists, as well as extensive reviews of the published literature. That bothered people the most was that the article spelled out in black and white just how dire the situation is. Scientists, many of whom have been harassed and intimidated by deniers for years, panicked and furiously distanced themselves from author David Wallace-Wells’ conclusions, even though these findings were simply extrapolating from their own research and modelling.

We’ve now had a quarter century of positive climate messaging, and in that 25 years, carbon emissions have continued their ineluctable upward trajectory, while the condition of the biosphere has deteriorated markedly in the same time frame. Whatever about scare stories allegedly not working, we can say with certainty that all our attempts at putting a positive spin on the gargantuan task of reining in climate change have failed utterly.

Having sat down recently to re-watch ‘The Day After’, I was struck by its matter-of-fact pessimistic tone. It seemed to be saying to viewers: ‘this is what you get if you let your leaders screw up; now, what are you going to do about it?’ Such a calamity remains a distinct possibility today: military experts now estimate a 10% likelihood of a nuclear war with North Korea.

Given the downsides, most people would regard that is a monstrously unacceptable level of risk, and rightly want to see it reduced. Yet an even more colossal failure of both policy and imagination on environmental stewardship leaves us teetering on the brink of an even more acute tragedy. This time, the odds of avoiding ruin are vanishing small.

Given what’s at stake, maybe it might be time to see if it’s possible to somehow shock humanity from its somnolent stupor of misplaced complacency and into sustained action. After all, what – apart from absolutely everything – have we got to lose?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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