Member Publications

How to build an architecture of peace, when destruction can rain down in mere minutes

Contributed to The Globe and Mail | Published July 7, 2019

The existence of 13,865 nuclear weapons held by nine countries has not been enough, seemingly, to demonstrate political power. Now science and technology are giving us faster, more precise methods of destroying “the enemy.” The name of this new danger: “hypersonic” missiles.

The United States, Russia and China are leading the way on the development of hypersonic missiles, purportedly capable of travelling at more than 15 times the speed of sound and striking any target in the world in a matter of minutes. They will be powerful enough to penetrate any building with the force of three to four tonnes of TNT.

Although hypersonics are intended to carry conventional explosives, as distinct from nuclear, that’s not the main threat right now. Hypersonic missiles, conventional or nuclear, will be capable of striking at an adversary’s nuclear arsenal. Given the very short warning times of such attacks, states with nuclear weapons will have to assess how to respond to such threats quickly, and may be tempted to bypass political consultation. Their systems will also be placed on even higher levels of alert, increasing paranoia and pressure.

And, of course, it is highly unlikely that hypersonic weapons will stay “conventional.” Indeed, Russia is already boasting that it can place nuclear warheads on its hypersonic missiles. We’re looking at a world where catastrophic destruction is possible – and with unimaginable speed.

If the world is getting to be a better place, as so many indicators of progress reveal, how can we tolerate the constant modernization of the killing process? Is our struggle ultimately against particular weapons systems, or is it against humanity’s more fundamental lust for perfecting the art of killing?

These are questions that are made relevant again with the emergence of what The New York Times Magazine recently called “unstoppable hypersonic missiles.” As Times writer R. Jeffrey Smith reminds us, there are no international agreements on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used, nor are there any plans to start such discussions. Instead, he says, the world now faces a new arms race with Russia and China – “one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions.”

The issue of hypersonic weapons should highlight the growing urgency of reconstructing a reliable nuclear-arms control regime. Such a system should place a legal obligation on all countries to pursue and complete comprehensive negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Stunningly, the reverse is happening: The U.S. and Russia continue to violate their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as they abandon other treaties.

Immediate steps are necessary. At a minimum, keep nuclear warheads off hypersonics; remove all nuclear systems from high-alert status to prevent false alarms from triggering nuclear catastrophe; commence negotiations to control hypersonic weapons before the emerging hypersonic arms race swings into a no-holds-barred contest among a small but widening circle of countries.

Of course, the dismal state of nuclear disarmament in this chaotic period of world history sometimes raises doubts about the effectiveness of the nuclear disarmament movement. But the arrival of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which buttresses the nearly 50-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty, highlights the deepening humanitarian concern about the massive evil of nuclear weapons. Focusing only on nuclear disarmament is not enough to ensure sustainable world peace, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, there can be no world peace.

The new age of hypersonics reminds us that the agenda for peace is very long. It already includes curbing global warming, controlling cyberwarfare, promoting sustainable development, and continuing to learn that human rights include the right to be free of warfare.

Hypersonic marks another milestone in the development of instruments of warfare. We must respond by building a new architecture for peace. And one cornerstone of that architecture remains the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Ernie Regehr is chairman of Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Douglas Roche is a former senator and the former Canadian ambassador for disarmament.

U.S. joint chiefs release alarming nuclear operations document

The Hill Times | July 1, 2019

On June 11, the U.S. joint chiefs released a document simply entitled ‘Nuclear Operations,’ the first such doctrine paper in 14 years, and one that marks a major shift in U.S. military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war.

On June 19, The Guardian and a host of other media reported that on June 11 the U.S. joint chiefs released a document simply entitled “Nuclear Operations,” the first such doctrine paper in 14 years, and one that marks a major shift in U.S. military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war. The document states that “nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The Nuclear Operations document was taken down from the Pentagon online site after a week, and is now available only through a restricted access electronic library. Before it was withdrawn, it was downloaded by Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood said the new document “is very much conceived as a war-fighting doctrine, not simply a deterrence doctrine.”

This falls in the wake of the United States Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018 that expands the role of nuclear weapons by identifying new circumstances in which they could be used, namely in response to “strategic non-nuclear attacks” including cyber-attacks. The Nuclear Posture Review also outlined U.S. plans to mount lower-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-based missiles, increasing the possibility that they might actually be used. Other nuclear-armed states, including India and Pakistan, are following suit.

Many have noted that this change in doctrine and practice runs directly counter to a commitment in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies in order to facilitate disarmament, and to the legal commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament, in good faith.

And of course, all of this is happening as the U.S. and Iran edge closer and closer to war, a war that could draw in Russia, China and other nuclear powers; as the U.S. and Russia are about to formally withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Weapons Forces (INF) Treaty; amidst a new nuclear arms race led by the U.S. with an allocation upwards of $1.5-trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years; and technological developments including the aforementioned lower yield nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles that travel at 15 times the speed of sound, missiles roundly considered to be virtually unstoppable.

I feel like the guy wearing an old-style sandwich-board that reads “The End is Near!” But in truth, without being unjustifiably alarmist, it could well be. When the top military commanders of the, militarily, most powerful country on Earth suggest that “nuclear weapons could create the conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” we should all be worried sick and ask ourselves, what can we do—individually and collectively—to prevent this insanity from continuing.

Earl Turcotte is chair of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Bleak prospects for the ‘cornerstone’ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty | May 16, 2019

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is set to mark the 50th anniversary of its coming into force at its 2020 review conference. Whether this will be an occasion for celebration or lamentation is an open question: Will the progress made in global nuclear governance over half a century be jeopardized by irresponsible state action now?

The 190 states that are party to this cornerstone of the global security order met in New York recently, between April 27 and May 10, for the final preparatory session before the May 2020 review conference. The mood was decidedly downbeat at the session and “external events,” as a senior UN official present said, weighed “heavily on these proceedings.” Strong disagreements among participating states prevented a consensus endorsement of the chair’s concluding recommendations, which had to be issued under his personal authority.

The failure of the last review conference in 2015 will put additional pressure on the 2020 gathering to produce some form of agreement that will demonstrate that the three “pillars” of the NPT — nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy — are being implemented in a balanced fashion. However, without a radical re-prioritization of the NPT on the part of key states, the current foreign policy context suggests that the prospects for success are bleak. In the absence of such remedial action, the threat to the continued viability and authority of the treaty is great.

This list of problems the NPT faces is lengthy, varied and growing. Among the most prominent: the failure of the five nuclear weapon states to fulfill their nuclear disarmament commitments set out in Article VI of the treaty and their unchecked engagement in what can only be described as a new nuclear arms race; the recent US and Russian withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and lack of apparent interest to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which would mean the end of any legally-binding constraints on their nuclear arsenals.

In addition, what had been heralded as a successful multilateral diplomatic effort to curtail the Iranian nuclear program, the so-called JCPOA agreement, is now imperiled by the US withdrawal. Its aggressive imposition of sanctions on other states trading with Iran has now prompted an Iranian reaction that threatens to kill the deal entirely.

There are several other serious problems including the defection of North Korea from the NPT and its overt development of nuclear weapons., and the rift between supporters and opponents of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which the former say complements the NPT and the latter says undermines it.

Combine these with the continued lack of progress to universalize the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea with their nuclear weapons remain outside), and it is a wonder that the NPT retains any credibility as a framework for global nuclear governance.

Abandoning the step-by-step approach for…the impossible?

At this critical juncture for the NPT, the United States has decided to turn its back on implementation of commitments agreed to at past review conferences in favour of a re-imagining of the enterprise as one of “let’s pretend we can fashion a better world.”

Using its leverage as a sort of hegemon for the NPT, the US has set out a future course of action for the treaty parties that constitutes a major departure from previous nuclear policy orthodoxy. The new US approach was unveiled initially in a working paper entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” submitted to the April 2018 NPT preparatory gathering. Its contents were elaborated on by its author, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation Christopher Ford, in remarks delivered on April 30 at a side-event during the recent NPT proceedings.

Ford essentially argued that the traditional “step-by-step” approach with a focus on nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia had failed in that bilateral context, and had also ignored the nuclear build-ups of China, India and Pakistan. A new discourse was necessary that would be more realistic than the old in addressing the “conditions” that would be conducive to further disarmament.

These conditions, as detailed in the 2018 working paper, range from relatively modest measures such as adoption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol to strengthen international safeguards agreements, to fundamental transformations of inter-state relations until they are no longer “driven by assumptions of zero-sum geopolitical competition but are instead cooperative and free of conflict.”

To put it in other terms, when the lion lays down with the lamb, and milk and honey flow, we might hope to see some disarmament.

The fact that the Article VI commitment on cessation of the arms race and the negotiation in good faith of nuclear disarmament is not conditioned in this or in any other way does not seem to have concerned Ford. Nor did the fact that the US approach is at odds with the successive, specific steps towards nuclear disarmament agreed to at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences. The NPT’s legal and political commitments on nuclear disarmament, agreed to by all states parties, is apparently only so much “old think” to Washington. Ford also presented another paper outlining how the US initiative — now renamed “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (an example of “green washing” perhaps) — was to be implemented.

Although lip service was paid to establishing a “diverse” international working group to pursue the initiative, the US clearly wishes to remain in the driver seat and will be the one to decide which states are invited to the inaugural meeting to be held in Washington this summer. The limited number to be included will be asked for their views on the US ideas, but with a secretariat from the State Department and clear control of the agenda, this will likely produce a “Made in America” process, with participation limited to suitably deferential allies and partners. It will serve US interests in providing a distraction from the deeply disturbing deterioration in implementation of NPT-originated commitments and will enable the US to point to a “process” and “fresh thinking” in the runup to the 2020 review conference.

Some shiny tinsel in the window, however, doesn’t hide the fact that the US initiative, with its dismissal of the “step-by-step” approach as unrealistic and ineffectual, pulls the rug out from underneath its nuclear-dependent allies, including Canada, who have dutifully argued that “step-by-step” is the only practical way to make progress on nuclear disarmament. What contortions are they now going to have to go through to align themselves with the new gospel from Washington? Having been supporters of an NPT-centric approach to global nuclear governance, rooted in treaty obligations and the political commitments made at successive review conferences, these non-nuclear weapon states will be hard pressed to acknowledge that this focus was misguided. Which among them will be brave enough to speak truth to power and point out that if the US wishes to improve the current security environment, it could start by returning to compliance with existing international commitments?

Ignoring this diplomatic legacy to embrace a discussion group on remedying the ills of the world, before realization of nuclear disarmament can be contemplated, will expose participating states to domestic criticism and deflect from more relevant preparatory work. Such side-shows, alas, will also further erode the credibility of the NPT as the central framework for global nuclear affairs.

True friends of the NPT will, in the leadup to 2020, need to decide whether to keep the focus on implementation of the goals and commitments endorsed by the treaty, or to turn their back on this and embrace the new faith of “environment” creation. The NPT’s future viability could largely depend on their choice.

Move the Nuclear Weapons Money

Report on the conference held in Basel, Switzerland 12-13 April 2019

The conference entitled “Move the Nuclear Weapons Money” that took place in Basel, 12-13 April, was a particularly encouraging experience. Many possible new avenues for discouraging the arms trade and even nuclear weapons were introduced, and a most impressive list of invited participants was present. It would be hard to determine whether listening to the speakers, or interacting with them between and after sessions was the more valuable. Two German ex-parliamentarians and one from Norway were present, as well as Margaret Kiener Nellen, MP in the Swiss National Council and Fabian Hamilton, British MP for Leeds North since 1997; and many others from a great variety of backgrounds. As well as significant others who came simply to listen to the proceedings. Today I received the official conference report (click or tap to open).

The report speaks very well for itself and for the speakers, though any emphasis was of course that of the writers. In this sense, the conference deserves some additional comment on the specifics of divestment.

One can divest for more than one reason. Divestment is important for reasons of conscience, and it can be important strategically. An example of the former reason was exemplified by the talk of the Quaker, Chayley Collis, of Huddersfield, England. A paper by Rudolf Rechsteiner, President of the Ethos Foundation, dealt with the strategic aspects of divestment. Rechsteiner’s thorough investigation of the effects of divestment—where it might or is unlikely to succeed—was for me the highlight of the conference. So far, only his ppt presentation is available—see website given near the end of this report.

Other outstanding presentations were by Robert Smith, Jürgen Grässlin, and Bärbel Höhn, to mention only three of the many. Höhn’s activism for the Green Party in Germany includes many successes both within and outside of parliament.

Pugwash members will also be interested in the participation of Marzhan Nurzhan from Kazakhstan, who is a member of Young Pugwash and not only gave one of the talks but chaired one of the sessions, and was part of the staff organizing the conference.

As a general comment on the conference, I felt that it was a meeting of fine heads, all or almost all of whom are stuck in the current style of economy, in which money or its absence determines what happens. And that is not unreasonable, because it is the status quo. But I remember the words of economist Mary Kaldor1 in 1981, when she said “You will never get disarmament as long as we have the current form of economy.” It took me years to learn that lesson, but, today, nobody could be more convinced than I am of the truth of what she said. The traditional economy demands arms manufacture, because it doesn’t include a healthy ecosphere as part of its domain, and without arms manufacture, one cannot maximize production and the throughput of raw materials from extraction to their final resting place—a constant economic objective. I intervened after Alyn Ware’s paper, the last on the second day. Alyn had said how good it would be to have the money now used for military production in order to carry out peaceful programs for addressing climate change and achieving sustainability—a sentiment that has often been expressed and is agreeable to peace-loving people. I pointed out that addressing climate change is so urgent that we must not wait until military budgets decline hugely. The necessary funds must be produced by new means, such as issuance of new money from publicly-owned banks at zero interest.


Some papers (speeches) and a few PowerPoint presentations from the conference can be read at website: Move the nuclear weapons money: Investing in a Sustainable Future 

I am currently urging the conference organizers to increase the number of such “speeches” on their website, but it looks as if most of those likely to arrive are already on the website.

What’s at stake when restraints on nuclear powers go out the window?

First published in

With disappearing restraints on the nuclear systems of Russia and the United States, the atmosphere at a recent nuclear policy conference in Washington was unsurprisingly a mix of gloom and dismay.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has hosted a major conference in Washington devoted to issues of nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament every two years since its inaugural gathering in 1989, drawing diplomats and security experts from around the world. This year’s version, which took place on March 11-12, had 800 attendees plus another 400 participating remotely (and, as the convenors proudly proclaimed, was the first to achieve full gender parity in terms of speakers and moderators.)

The conference provides an unrivalled platform for policy wonks to take the pulse of current strategic postures and programs. However, this year the pulse of arms control was hard to detect. The gloomy atmosphere reflected the mood of most participants. With a background of the withdrawal in February of the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia and the lack of any evident commitment to an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits strategic nuclear systems and which expires in February 2021, it seems likely that the last remaining treaty restraints on the nuclear systems of these opposing powers will disappear.

Combine this with the failure at the February Hanoi Summit to conclude any agreement on North Korean denuclearization, the recent resumption of military clashes across the Line of Control between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, a major rift within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) community and last year’s US rejection of the Iran JCPOA nuclear deal; it is no wonder that pessimism on the future of cooperative security and nuclear restraint was pouring out faster than the coffee during the conference breaks.

One seasoned European diplomat described the situation as “worse than the Cold War,” with strategic dialogue suspended and nuclear powers moving away from pure deterrence postures and engaging again in arms racing (aka “modernization”) and sabre-rattling.

Having last attended the Carnegie conference in 2013, the contrast between the relatively upbeat mood under the Obama administration and the sense the arms control community now has of being under siege with the duo of Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton in the White House was striking. I came away with particular concerns over four areas: the breakdown of the US-Russian strategic relationship, the current impasse in denuclearization talks with North Korea, the bleak prospects for the NPT, and Canada’s silence on the issues.

US-Russian relations

The breakdown of the bilateral strategic relationship between the two leading nuclear powers was a salient theme, with many participants urging a revival of the strategic stability talks that had been the vehicle for developing and sustaining the strategic arms control framework over decades.

The few Trump administration officials in attendance were of a different view — gamely suggesting that their policy line was the only correct one. A senior State Department speaker defended the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty as an exercise to “uphold standards” and was non-committal on an extension of New START, noting simply that an inter-agency dialogue was underway on this issue. A senior Department of Defense official from the Obama administration stressed that maintaining New START (and the verification and data exchange provisions that go with it) was very much in US interests. Former US Senator Sam Nunn, now the co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, decried that there seemed to be no political will in Washington to save the treaties.

Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov reiterated Russia’s stance, saying that although the US claim of violation of the INF Treaty was a “fairy tale,” President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia would not deploy ground-based missiles anywhere in the prohibited range unless the US had done so first. Antonov said that Russia would not get drawn into an expensive arms race with the US and dismissed allegations that Russia had adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” early use of nuclear weapons doctrine as “fake news” promoted by American interests behind development of “low-yield” warheads and new missile systems.

If these developments were not disturbing enough, a session on “Nuclear Command and Control Vulnerability” raised the spectre of cyber attacks on early warning or command and control (C2) systems which might prompt a “use it or lose it” reaction and put further pressure on crisis decision-making. A Chinese expert warned that when combined with shortened flight times of new hypersonic missiles and the conflation of conventional and nuclear systems the strategic situation was “more risky than ever before.”

Antonov and other Russian experts argued for a revival of the strategic stability talks for managing the increasingly complicated relationship. This call for resumed dialogue was supported by many participants who criticized the downgrading of diplomatic approaches to addressing the geopolitical tensions and sustaining strategic stability in favour of military buildups.

One supportive voice on the US side was Democratic Representative Adam Smith, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who called for restarting the arms control process and re-opening strategic communication channels. He also suggested that the US can achieve nuclear deterrence with far fewer warheads. Echoing some of the concerns of the cyber experts, Smith said his priorities included securing nuclear command and control and developing US capacities for cyber and information warfare. He emphasized the need to work with allies rather than “badger them,” characterizing Trump’s “America First” posture as “a moronic foreign policy.”

The failed Hanoi Summit and the elusive goal of denuclearization

Steve Biegun, Trump’s Special Representative for North Korea, gave a keynote speech that downplayed the failure of last month’s Hanoi Summit between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to yield an agreement on denuclearization, suggesting that the US was playing a long game and that Trump had set no timeline for negotiations.

Biegun defended not agreeing to any partial easing of UN sanctions, saying that this would only allow for new funds to be directed into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. He said the US was seeking the comprehensive elimination of all WMD arsenals and facilities including all dimensions of the nuclear fuel cycle. This would require intrusive verification to ensure that a North Korean declaration was accurate, and that disarmament would be irreversible. He noted in this regard that the establishment of permanent liaison offices in the North would be essential in support of this effort.

Biegun expressed support for confidence-building measures (CBMs) underway in the demilitarized zone that had been developed between North and South Korea and indicated that certain CBMs were being discussed in the US-North Korean track as well. When challenged as to why North Korea would put any faith in an eventual agreement with the US, given the latter’s withdrawal from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance with its terms, Biegun side-stepped the question by asserting that the US was engaged in a much broader endeavour with North Korea, not merely a nuclear deal. Biegun defended the current approach of the Trump administration, saying that it was the only one that had succeeded in directly engaging the North’s “main decision maker.”

The Non-Proliferation Treaty under threat

How the current bleak prospects for nuclear arms control and disarmament would impact the NPT (the global treaty governing nuclear affairs with 190 states parties) and its 2020 Review Conference was an underlying concern at the conference.

Trump administration officials took a “not to worry” stance, pointing to resumed talks amongst the P5 nuclear weapon states in Beijing in January (although disagreement amongst them prevented the issuance of any statement).

The US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation trotted out the old figures of an 88 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal since the peak of the Cold War without any reference to the current build-up or the absence of any arms reduction negotiations. He championed the US proposal for a “creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament” working group, although this terminology has now been changed to “creating the environment for” (an even vaguer term).

The Russian ambassador was much blunter in his assessment, stating that if the strategic arms control framework is allowed to collapse, the NPT Review Conference will be “a disaster.” If the present trends continue, what results on nuclear disarmament will the nuclear powers be able to present to the NPT membership, he asked, noting that the NPT regime would be easy to destroy and difficult to rebuild.

The significance for the NPT of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which currently has 70 signatories and 22 ratifications en route to the 50 required for the treaty’s entry into force) was fiercely debated at one panel. The French Foreign Ministry’s director of strategic affairs decried the treaty for its “divisive effects” and supposed weaknesses, while supporters argued that it was the failure of the nuclear weapon states to deliver on their nuclear disarmament commitments that had prompted the prohibition treaty. The upcoming NPT PrepCom in New York (April 29-May 10) will provide further evidence as to whether the NPT membership will be able to transcend the failure of the 2015 Review Conference and find some common ground at the 2020 meeting.
Canada’s silence

It is perhaps reflective of the decline of Canadian engagement in the arena of nuclear affairs that, to my knowledge, no Canadians figured amongst the panellists at the Carnegie conference. What the Canadian view of these developments consisted of was not a matter of concern for the organizers. Indeed, official Canadian statements on the key nuclear challenges facing the international community are few and far between. Despite urging from several Canadian NGOs, the government has not spoken out in favour of maintaining the strategic restraint regime represented by the INF and New START treaties.

Concerns over the deteriorating strategic situation had prompted the House of Commons Committee on National Defence to recommend unanimously last summer that the government take a leadership role at NATO to initiate discussion of these risks and what can be done to counter them. Specifically, the Committee’s recommendation #21 reads in part “That the Government of Canada take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons. That this initiative be undertaken on an urgent basis in view of the increasing threat of nuclear conflict…”. The government essentially ignored this operational direction in its response to the Committee’s report, offering up only boiler plate text on existing positions. Leadership on these issues within NATO, it seems, would have to come from some other member state.

Ostrich-like evasive postures are not appropriate at this point in time, when the risks of nuclear weapon use, be it from calculation or miscalculation, are elevated and the cooperative restraint regimes of the past are rapidly fraying. If some of the destructive consequences of the current impasse, outlined at the conference, come to pass, Canada will not be immune from their effects, and people may well ask: what did Canada do to prevent them?

Review: This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate
By Naomi Klein
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014
533 pages ISBN 978-0-307-40199-1

The climate crisis changes everything (14,15)

In 2010, world renowned climatologist and specialist on glacier melt, Lonnie G. Thompson stated that virtually all of us (climatologists) are now concerned that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization. In 2011, an International Energy Agency (IEA) report projected that we are on track for 6 degrees Celsius of warming. IEA’s chief economist stated that “Everybody knows that this will have catastrophic implications for all of us”. Six degrees of warming is likely to set in motion several major tipping points such as the breakdown of the West Antarctica ice sheet and massive releases of methane from Arctic permafrost. Indeed NASA and University of California, Irvine scientists revealed in May 2014 that glacier melt in a section of West Antarctica roughly the size of France now ‘appears unstoppable’. According to lead study author Eric Rignot, the disappearance of West Antarctica ice sheet comes with a sea level rise of between three and five meters – an event that could displace millions of people worldwide.” In short Lonnie Thompson’s clear and present danger contemplates a “terror of an unliveable future” (28). It is this prospect of terror that changes everything.

Proponents of capitalism have severely limited progress in reducing green house gas emissions

Since 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased 61 percent (11). To date progress in averting the climate crisis has been way too slow and far too inadequate. The reason for this monumental lack of progress is that the proponents in the environmentalist movement for averting the crisis of climate warming have been strongly opposed by the proponents of the “reigning economic paradigm of deregulated capitalism and public austerity” ( 63). And “right now capitalism is winning (the battle) hands down” (22).

And the following are their strategies:

The oil and gas industry has heavily funded think tanks with missions to deny that climate change is caused by their companies (38).

Other capitalists have funded right wing think tanks that strongly advocate neoliberal economic objectives: tax cuts, smaller government, more privatization of government operations and less regulation of private corporations, particularly regulations that affect green house gas emissions (38). Think tanks have been chosen as the medium for communication because they give the appearance of academic respectability and academics are generally far more trusted by the public than are politicians or corporations. Achievement of the objectives of neo liberalism since the 1980s has severely limited government sector’s willingness and capability to address climate change.

Corporate influence on government policies through the tactics of targeted campaign contributions, lobbying and interchanges of their personnel with government senior employees have induced governments to reject green house gas emission targets at international summit meetings on climate change (151).

Corporate funded right wing think tanks have successfully influenced public and political leaders to accept the false choice between fossil fuel extraction and job creation. The resulting fear of job losses and economic insecurity instilled in the public at large has meant that, during times of economic hardship, people’s environmental concerns go out the window (117).

Relentless corporate advertising in the media have extolled material consumption as a virtue and systematically influenced the public to buy things that they never knew they needed. In the US, shopping was even identified as a patriotic practice by President George W. Bush. Status and luxury goods and services sold to the affluent – and those aspiring to be affluent – are not only uneconomic but have relatively high carbon imprints.

Since the 1980s oil and gas companies have co opted big budget green groups by giving them access to power and generous support from large elite foundations. In return the green groups have bought into ideas about miracle products or carbon markets or bridge fuels – ideas that were either so weak or so high risk that trusting in them required “magical thinking” (210-211). The environmental movement was also distracted by a narrow focus on market mechanisms of carbon pricing which are relatively ineffective without supplementary government regulations on emissions. For example, the German government failed to introduce top down regulation to phase out the coal industry and instead relied on a weak market mechanism of carbon trading through the European emission trading system to try to put negative pressure on coal (138).

The oil and gas industry has distracted political leaders and the public with “magical thinking’. In the 1980s they argued that extraction of natural gas by the process of fracking would be a bridge to greater reliance on cleaner and renewable forms of energy. The result of lowering the price of natural gas reduced the incentive to invest in more expensive renewable energy. Other proposals such as the European emission trading system failed because businesses “gamed” the system. And “messiahs” like billionaire CEO of Virgin Airways, Richard Branson, reneged on public promises to fund climate change research to the extent of $3.5 billion. The latest magical thinking comes from corporate proposals for unproven geo engineering to pollute the skies to absorb CO2 emission. It reflects the salesmanship tactic of promising anything to get the sale and worrying about delivery later.

Finally, as Klein puts it “our betters encouraged us to shop and gave us handy calculators on any one of dozens of green sites so that we could purchase an offset to instantly erase our sins (212). All of this enabled many to forget about Al Gore’s 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth (211). Those familiar with religious history of the Catholic Church will recall the sale of indulgences to the rich to facilitate their entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Blockadia” represents the political maturity of the environmental movement

In response to the duplicitous strategies of the oil and gas industry, the environmental movement has developed some new strategies and tactics in its “Blockadia” movement. Foremost among these strategies is civil disobedience in blocking pipelines and fracking processes. For decades the official climate change discussion revolved around trying to balance actions necessary to reduce the risk of climate chaos against the risk that such action would pose for GDP. In Blockadia this “balanced discussion” has been replaced at the barricades at the side of the road by a resurgence of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle holds that, when human health and environment are significantly at risk, [i.e., unless there is scientific certainty that the risk is not significant] no action should be taken. Klein argues that the burden of proof that a practice is safe should not be placed on the element of the public that is being harmed (335). It was Keystone that provoked the historic wave of civil disobedience in Washington D.C. in 2011 and the largest protest in the history of the U.S. climate movement on February 2013 when more than 40,000 people assembled outside the White House (301-302).

Blockadia’s other strategies include citizen groups that challenge the claims of corporate marketing with academic research and community activism that identifies and advertises the sacrifices that oil and gas companies are foisting on people. They also include putting pressure on community political leaders to stop oil and gas development on behalf of those being sacrificed, and launching court challenges on behalf of those who are being sacrificed – in particular first nations.

With the political maturity of the environmental movement comes the recognition that the choice between extraction and jobs presented by the industry and its funded think tanks is a false one. The real choice is between public investments in renewable energy versus private investment in extraction. And the choice is an easy one because investment in renewal generates far more jobs than investment in extraction.

Klein’s new economic model substantially changes the nature of the capitalist system

The new model is aimed at simultaneously reducing the inequality of wealth and income, eliminating poverty and curtailing the extraction of fossil fuels so as to leave 80% of the estimated $27 trillion dollars of oil and gas reserves in the ground forever thereby dramatically reducing the current projections of green house gas emissions. The model spells the demise of the richest most powerful industry in the world – the oil and gas industry as 80% of its reserves will become “stranded assets”.

The new economic model features tough regulation of business, higher levels of taxation for the affluent and, in many cases, the reversal of privatization of energy production in order to give communities the power to make the changes they desire (128). It features a Marshall plan of state-led funding of investment in renewable wind and solar energy at war time levels (5,108).

The options for raising the cash to equitably fund the major investments to achieve this “Great Transition” from fossil fuels to renewable energy include the following (114, 115):

  1. Low rate financial transaction tax (Tobin tax) on stocks, derivatives, other financial instruments
  2. Closing tax havens
  3. A one per cent tax on US billionaires
  4. Slash military budgets of the top ten military spenders by 25 percent
  5. A $50 per ton tax on CO2 emissions
  6. Phase out subsides to the fossil fuel industry

Free trade (including the liberalization of investment) that began in the early 1990s has been a package deal for cheap labour and more emissions at the expense of environmental sustainability. Therefore trade needs to be reduced and localized production and consumption needs to be increased.

Other policies for “selective de growth”, for more economic equality and less overall material consumption include (93):

  • Luxury taxes to reduce wasteful consumption
  • Infrastructure spending on mass transit renewable energy, weatherization and ecosystem restoration
  • Increased size of the public sector and reduced size of the private sector
  • Shorter work weeks of three to four days for more leisure time, less material consumption and a better balance between the supply and demand for labour
  • A basic annual income

But it’s not the end of capitalism – only a variation

The part of the title of the book “capitalism versus the climate” might suggest the end of capitalism. Indeed, it has been argued that Klein has not precisely defined capitalism and consequently her “ever-present enemies on the right will call her a command-economy Stalinist” (Nelles). The reality is that Klein’s new economic model is a variation of capitalism. As Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains

“The battle between capitalism and communism may be over but market economies come in many variations and the contest among them rages on… Economies need a balance between the role of markets and the role of government – with important contributions by non market and non-governmental institutions. In the last twenty-five years, America lost that balance, and pushed its unbalanced perspective on countries around the world ( Stiglitz : xii).

Insofar as Klein’s new economic model provides a much more humane, fulfilling life style for the vast majority, it can be considered a variation that is consistent with the objectives of democracy.

The new economic model appeals to a broader grass roots coalition for change

Organizations of environmentalists can now be joined by organizations advocating for fairer taxation, less economic inequality, and for the reduction in the incidence of poverty because the new economic model serves the interests of all these groups. Furthermore the new economic model provides a far more humane, fulfilling life style for the vast majority than the current economic system does. At the same time the appeal to the majority makes the idea of a massive social movement to demand change a real possibility (33). Most importantly the new economic model’s primary focus on job creation and better incomes for the majority eliminates the public’s fear that reducing extraction will reduce job opportunities and economic security. But, as Klein says, the policies of the new economic model are the most politically challenging (93).

Connecting the missing dot – the democratic deficit is the challenge

The genius of Klein’s book is connecting the dots, or more precisely the root causes that link the reigning capitalist economic system with the climate change. This connection was identified by Gustave Speth who was the environmental adviser to President Jimmy Carter, a co founder of the natural Resources Defense Council and dean of Yale School Forestry and Environmental Studies. Speth has thrown his lot in with the radicals and joined the warriors of Blockadia getting arrested for protesting the keystone XL pipeline (205).

Klein recognizes that climate change and the economic system are also linked to democracy. She argues that progressive can easily show that the real solutions to the climate crisis can also produce a more stable and equitable economic system that generates plentiful dignified work. However, before that can happen, the battle of ideas must be fought about the right of citizens to democratically determine what kind of economy they need (125). What she has missed here is Gustave Speth’s observation that “Today’s environmental reality is linked powerfully with social inequality and the erosion of democratic government and popular control (Speth p. xi).

The origins of democratic degeneration in the US can be traced back to the 1960s as professor and syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. explains.

What is striking about political events of the 1960s is that they allowed both of the nation’s dominant ideologies and both parties, to become vehicles for upper-middle-class interests. ….These constituencies were not concerned primarily with the political issues that mattered to less well-to-do voters – notably the performance of the nation’s economy, the distribution of economic benefits and the efficacy of the most basic institution of government including schools, roads and the criminal justice system. While upper middle class reformers left and right argued about morality, anticommunism, imperialism and abstract rights, millions of voters were confined to the sidelines wondering why the nation’s political discussion had become so distant from their concerns (Dionne 2004: 13).

One explanation for the upper middle class dominance in matters of economic inequality is the self disenfranchisement of lower income Americans. For example in 2010 only 30% of the 60% of Americans who earned less than $50,000 per annum voted in the US congressional elections that year while 68% of Americans who earned more than $50,000 voted (Venton: 211). The mathematical consequence of this is that the majority (i.e. 60%) of American voters earn over $50,000.

In these circumstances it should not be surprising that a study by Princeton University researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern University researcher Benjamin Page concluded that US government policy making is dominated by powerful business organization and a small number of affluent Americans while average or ordinary citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence on policy (Gilens & Page: 577). Gilens and a small army of researchers gathered data on 1,779 policy cases between 1981 and 2012 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change. Their data set included only policies thought to be important enough for a national opinion survey to ask a question about it (Gilens & Page: 574). Their study observed that policy preferences expressed by ordinary citizens – that is adult citizens with median incomes – are not always ignored but they are adopted only when policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite adults – i.e. those with incomes at the 90th percentile (Gilens & Page: 568, 572). The researchers concluded that the majority does not rule – at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests they generally lose (Gilens & Page: 576). America is not a democracy but rather an oligarchy.

The fact is that a large percentage of the American public with the lower incomes whose lives and environmental surroundings could be enhanced with the economic model that Klein proposes, are politically powerless by virtue of the fact that they are uninterested in politics and have chosen not to vote. The battle between the environmentalism and capitalism could easily be won if they did vote. For example, if all Americans were “conscripted” with compulsory voting along the lines of the Australian government where voter participation rates are close to 90%, then the 60% of Americans earning less than $50,000 per annum would comprise a 60% majority of voters (Venton: 2011). This, combined with a high quality education campaign for all Americans about civics, about the principles of democracy, about the responsibilities of citizenship and about the basic relatively simple high level elements of how alternative variations of the capitalist market system and environmental/ecological systems actually work, would likely change everything.

The democratic deficit in Canada is also a political challenge

Naomi Klein is reported to be a staunch Canadian and therefore will likely be chagrined to hear that the state of democracy in Canada is not much better than it is in the US. As Samara Canada’s Alison Loat has stated:

Canada’s democracy has lost its way, its purpose and the support of the public it is meant to serve. How did one of the world’s most functional democracies go so very wrong (Loat 2014)?

In my view Canada’s democracy does not serve the interests of the majority because a very large proportion of the electorate (the poor, the unemployed, those with incomes below the median) whose interests would be served by Klein’s economic model do not vote. As a result the majority of the electorate who do vote are the beneficiaries of the reigning economic system and aim to keep it that way. All political parties on the left tend to chase these largely affluent voters in the centre in order to maximize their political power and are reluctant to support the kind of economic model that Klein envisages. On top of this these political parties are splitting the popular vote and are consequently underrepresented in the House of Commons as a result of the First Past the Post electoral system. This is the special nature of the political challenge in Canada.

Now is the best time to change the economic model

Klein argues that there has never been a better time for the opportunity to meet these political challenges. Her argument is based on the premise of change theory that radical changes in a democratic society are only likely if there exists a major crisis. She asserts that our society is faced with two major crises today. The first is an economic one arising from an economic and political system that is characterized by periodic major financial instability, that features an excessive inequality of wealth and income not seen in 80 years, that exhibits excessively high rates of youth unemployment, that has failed to eliminate poverty in the most affluent nation on the planet and that faces another decade of slow economic growth accompanied by even more inequality. The second crisis is even more serious – that is the dangerous global warming that, if unchecked now, promises a “terror of an unlivable future”.

Being prepared for change is critical for success

The window for change is very narrow. It will come quickly and progressive forces need to be ready with a comprehensive vision of the new economic model as well as serious political strategies for achieving its goals (10). Klein’s insight on this matter was documented in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine with reference to General Augusto Pinochle’s coup that overthrew the Salvador Allende regime in Chile on September 11, 1973. The day after the Chilean coup, a 500 page revolutionary economic Plan was on the desk of the General Officers of the Armed Forces who performed government duties. The Plan’s proposals bore a striking resemblance to those found in Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom – namely privatization, deregulation and cuts to social spending (Klein 2007: 90). The shock of the coup itself was immediately followed by Milton Friedman’s capitalist shock treatment, a technique in which hundreds of Latin American economists had by now been trained at the University of Chicago and its various franchise institutions. To this was added the shock of the torture techniques disseminated by CIA training programs for Latin American police and military for those who might otherwise stand in the way of the economic shock. The point is that, without the Plan, Pinochet, who knew next to nothing about economics, would have been ill prepared to introduce the radically different economic system that had been overwhelmingly rejected within the confines of democratic debate during the Allende regime (Klein 207: 83.91, 90).

By contrast Klein notes the lack of preparedness of the Obama administration in the wake of the shock of the financial crisis of 2008. Obama had a golden opportunity to rebuild the Main Street economy into a new energy economy to create five million new jobs. However, he failed to seize the opportunity because the environmental movement was too weak, being narrowly focused on carbon pricing, while corporate power and influence over public opinion was too strong (120-122).

A new construct in the neoliberal rubble

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein described a system of corporate greed and exploitation that was destroying the environment. Its foundation was a system based upon the neoliberal thinking and objectives. This Changes Everything exposes the lies, the deception and the failure of corporate-supported neo liberalism since the first monumental failure of the experiment in market fundamentalism in Chile in 1973. It provides the answer to the question “What do we want to build in the rubble of this failed system? All the interest groups in Canadian civil society for fairer taxation, for less economic inequality, for the elimination of poverty, for a healthy sustainable environment, for a better quality of life and for democratic reform should read this book and join the grand coalition to avert climate change and thereby eliminate the fear of a “terror of an unlivable future”.

Peter Venton is a former senior economist in the Ministry of Finance of the Government of Ontario.


Dionne Jr. E.J. (2004) Why Americans Hate Politics New York: Simon and Schuster. This is the second edition of the author’s 1991 book unchanged except for a 27 page introduction which he has added.

Gilens, Martin & Page, Benjamin (2014) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” American Political Science Association journal, Perspectives on Politics September 2014 Vol. 12/No.3 pp 564-581.

Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Loat, Allison and Michael MacMillan (2014) Tragedy in the Commons Synopsis by publisher Macmillan Random House Canada April 15, 2014.

Nelles, Drew “(2014) “A change is gonna come” Globe and Mail September 20, 2014.

Speth, James Gustave (2008) The Bridge to the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph (2010) Freefall America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy New York: W.W. Norton & Co. paperback reprint with a new afterword.

Venton, Peter (2015) “Radical Changes in Canadian Democracy: For Ecology and the Public Good” in Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, law and human rights eds. Laura Westra, Janice Gray and Vasiliki Karageorgou. Abingdon: Routledge pp. 201-219.