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What can climate talks learn from the fight against nuclear weapons?

Could people get just as concerned about climate change as nuclear war? Nuclear war image from

From the 1950s until the 1990s, nuclear weapons were viewed as the greatest threat to human life on the planet. Jonathan Schell, whose book The Fate of the Earth (1998) perhaps best crystallised the danger and fear of such weapons for a popular audience, referred to life after a nuclear holocaust as a “republic of insects and grass”.

Today the world faces a different global threat of our own making: climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has documented the possibly catastrophic impacts of unchecked warming. This November, nations around the world will meet in Paris in an attempt to develop a global climate agreement beyond 2020.

The threat of nuclear war was substantially reduced through several successful strategic arms-control agreements in the 1970s and 1980s.

What – if anything – can such successful agreements, designed to address a global threat, tell us about climate change agreements and their success?

A brief history of nuclear treaties

On May 26, 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union signed two strategic arms-control treaties: the Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (the “Interim Agreement”) and the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, as part of ongoing talks to limit nuclear arms.

In the Interim Agreement, both superpowers agreed for the first time to limit the number of offensive nuclear weapons they could deploy, while the missile treaty limited the number of defensive weapons. This was just as important, and worked off the recognition that mutual vulnerability could produce strategic stability.

A second agreement in 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union, eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 km.

At the end of July 1991 the US and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). It took nine years to negotiate and, for the first time, required a reduction in warheads deployed on strategic offensive weapons. The treaty provided that the US cut its ballistic missile warheads by about 38% and the Soviet Union cut its missiles by 48% to equal levels.

START II was signed in 1993 and START III in 2002. The latest START agreement was signed in 2011. Since the 1986 Reykjvic summit at which the foundations for START were laid, there has been a two-thirds decline in nuclear weapons in the arsenals of Russia and the United States.

Why did they work?

All of these agreements were designed to address a global threat – nuclear war and a possible nuclear holocaust. There was a clear and present danger, a danger that manifested itself across decades. It was also a danger increasingly (and easily) understood by the public.

The danger could be seen: missiles being paraded, missiles being tested, missiles being deployed. Fear, especially in Europe, was almost visceral. There was public support for the agreements.

Books and films also played a role. Movies such as The Day After (1983) and Testament (1983) and enormously popular books such as Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1988) and Helen Caldicott’s Missile Envy (1986) fed public demand for action.

Public demonstrations against nuclear weapons became defining global moments.

The agreements were not multilateral; they involved a small number of parties. The technical issues were often difficult, but the parameters of what needed to be negotiated were clear. The objective was also clear: the reduction of nuclear weapons or a strategy whereby they would not be used.

There are, of course, successful multilateral nuclear weapons agreements - the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), for example, to which 189 states are party. It should be noted, however, that the mere fact of the treaty can’t prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, the retention of such weapons or, of course, the desire to obtain them – thus the great number of state parties.

Could it work for climate?

These arms control treaties show that small numbers of countries can agree on matters that affect the future of the planet. They also show that it helps if the danger is clear and present, and the issues are clearly understood and recognised by the public.

Bill McKibben, the activist and founder of, has said that, in terms of both the nuclear and climate change crises, citing Schell: “the jeopardy to our species and the rest of the species on the earth, adds a dimension that we have never seen before”.

Perhaps climate agreements between small numbers of state parties could be the solution, rather than a global deal.

The late Nobel laureate in economics, Elinor Ostrom proposes a solution at many levels:

[t]he likelihood of developing an effective, efficient, and fair system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that can be rapidly initiated at the global level appear to be very low. Given the severity of the threat, simply waiting for resolution of these issues at a global level, without trying out policies at multiple scales because they lack a global scale, is not a reasonable stance.

A recent example is the 2014 climate deal between just the US and China in which the US commits (but is not legally bound) to reducing emissions by up to 28% on 2005 levels by 2025. China aims to cease emissions growth before 2030. China and the US account for 42% of global emissions.

If the world’s four largest emitters, came to an agreement – between China (28%), the US (14%), the EU (10%) and India (7%), together with Russia and Brazil – it would cover about 70% of world emissions.

However, for much of the public, unlike the threat of nuclear war, the climate change threat is not a visceral one; this may well account for a lack of progress in concluding legally-binding climate change agreements.

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