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Science for Peace: Facing the Existential Threats

Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations a the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.

Contributed article for Climate Change Working Group.

© Bilanol

Today we face at least three overlapping, existential crises: militarism, the climate crisis and the collapse of biodiversity. While interrelated in many complex ways, these are separate threats, in that solving one will not eliminate the others. Climate change is certainly exacerbating the decline of species in countless ways. However, stopping climate change (if that can be done) would not stop other drivers of mass extinction, such as the destruction of habitat, pesticide/chemical pollution and overfishing of oceans. Militarism is likewise one of the main drivers of climate change (the Pentagon being the largest institutional user of fossil fuels on the planet), but eliminating it and the nuclear weapons that directly threaten our existence will not solve the climate crisis. It goes without saying that overcoming the biodiversity and climate change crises will not create peace on earth, though it may diminish some of the drivers of conflict, like migration.

Addressing any of these threats in a meaningful way will require levels of cooperation among the nations of the world for which there is little precedent. Through the efforts of individual citizens (especially Greta Thunberg) and groups (especially Extinction Rebellion), there is growing awareness of the dangers of climate change and mass extinction in the global public. Yet governments and corporate elites lag far behind. The dangers of nuclear weapons and militarism by contrast, have gotten far less attention since the end of the last “cold war”. Yet it is the rise of militarism and the developing new “cold war” between the U.S. and China that makes the cooperation necessary to deal with climate change and biodiversity collapse so difficult to achieve. With the globe dividing into hostile camps and national budgets being devoted to expanding the military, investment in building carbon neutral infrastructures or setting aside nature reserves shrinks. Thus, even if this rise in military competition does not result in war and nuclear winter, we are still in deep trouble. We are indeed in the “decisive decade” that, if wasted on geopolitical competition, will doom us to runaway climate change and ecological collapse.

It’s in this context that the importance of Science for Peace is most clear to me. As our name suggests, we above all aim to put the members’ scientific expertise in the service of promoting peace. Our efforts to highlight climate change are not a departure from this goal, but an attempt to draw attention to the extent that the former too is a threat to peace. It is a threat to our collective survival as a species on this planet that should unite us in a common struggle regardless of citizenship, ethnicity or race. Instead, we see a return of hostile military alliances and “cold war”. This rise in militarism is to a considerable extent facilitated by a media environment in which coverage of international affairs is driven by government and corporate interests closely connected to military institutions.

As for Canada’s role at this critical juncture, it is telling that in our most recent elections foreign policy issues were rarely mentioned, either by party leaders or the press. Where was discussion of Canada’s role in raising tensions with China, or promoting regime change in Venezuela, or supplying arms used to attack civilians in Yemen, or increasing tensions with Russia? Despite the nightmare heatwaves and wildfires hitting our west coast, or the drought afflicting farmers in the prairie provinces, and elsewhere in the world, environmental issues likewise received short shrift.

Bleak as our situation appears to be, I think there is hope. More of the public is recognizing the threats we face; this awareness allows a small group of committed citizens like Science for Peace to have a larger impact than its membership or budget would indicate. We have among our members a deep pool of knowledge and experience and through our affiliation with educational institutions like U of T, access to highly motivated students who will be the opinion makers of the future. The seminars/webinars we have organized as well as “SfP discuss” provide invaluable counterpoints to the dominant narratives being presented in the mass media. By building alliances with other likeminded groups, such as World Without War, Voice of Women for Peace, and The Leap, we further amplify our voices.

Over the last decade or so, those among us that have studied the environmental/climate crisis have become very familiar with the notion of tipping points. These are the points at which a process that was predictable and linear suddenly crosses a threshold to exponential growth. Such tipping points are a frightening reality in the natural world, especially in relation to the CO2 that is accumulating in our atmosphere. We may be approaching tipping points of a social, economic and political sort as well. Points at which giant investment funds begin to dump stocks of companies with a business model that depends on the burning of fossil fuels, or producing chemicals that poison our world, or destroying natural habitats on land or at sea. Points at which the growing number of citizens demanding action to rein in corporate greed and militarism can simply no longer be ignored by those contending for public office. I believe that Science for Peace and its partners are getting us closer to these tipping points, which by their very nature arrive with surprising speed.


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