Legislators, experts, officials and youth discuss climate change and nuclear disarmament connections at special London event

An intergenerational dialogue on nuclear weapons and climate change - two existential threats to humanity.

The event was held at Central Hall Westminster (London, UK) and online on September 9, 2021. It  included students and youth leaders in dialogue with legislators (parliamentarians), policy/academic experts, members of the diplomatic community, representatives of civil society organizations and others.

Climate change and nuclear weapons are two existential threats to human survival that share a number of connections, according to speakers and participants at Nuclear Weapons & Climate Change, an intergenerational dialogue on nuclear weapons and climate impacts & actions that was held on September 9 in commemoration of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

Over 300 legislators, experts, government officials, youth leaders and representatives of climate action, peace and disarmament organizations from more than 60 countries participated in the event, which was held at the historic Central Hall Westminster in London and online.

Connections between nuclear disarmament and climate stabilization

The event highlighted that climate change and nuclear weapons, in addition to being the two most serious threats to the survival of human civilization, share other similarities and connections:

  • The impacts of climate change emissions and the use of nuclear weapons are trans-border and transgenerational. They cannot be contained in either time nor space – impacting globally and far into the future.
  • Neither issue can be resolved solely at national levels, but require international cooperation and the building of common security.
  • Climate change stimulates conflicts that could spill over into nuclear conflict, while any use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict would create catastrophic climatic consequences, compounding the current impact of climate change emissions. 
  • The human and financial resources currently devoted to nuclear weapons are desperately required to instead be invested in assist carbon emission reduction and climate stabilisation.  

Kazakhstan and nuclear abolition

The event was opened by Mr Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, who highlighted the importance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and measures to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Kazakhstan is a country which has been heavily impacted by climate change, and has also been devasted by over 460 Soviet nuclear tests. It is also the country which relinquished a nuclear arsenal of over 1500 nuclear weapons following independence from the Soviet Union, introduced the United Nations resolution establishing the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, and has undertaken other measures for nuclear disarmament.

“In 2015, Kazakhstan initiated the Universal Declaration on Achieving a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, which was supported by most of the UN Member States,” said Mr Tileuberdi. The declaration promotes the adoption of a global multilateral and legally binding document that provides for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, proposes redirection of human and economic resources from the nuclear weapons industry to instead strengthen sustainable development and eliminate poverty, and supports the goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons no later than 2045, the 100th anniversary of the United Nations. See UN Adopts Nuclear-Weapons-Free World Declaration initiated by Kazakhstan.

“In addition, in January 2021, Kazakhstan made a proposal to the United Nations to establish a Global Alliance of Leaders for Nuclear Security and a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World,” said Mr Alkey Margulanuly, Deputy Executive Director, Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, who spoke after the Foreign Minister.

Mr Margulanuly also noted the importance of global cooperation to address both nuclear weapons and climate issues. “As the world currently experiences the effects of the pandemic, we have realised how closely the world is inter-connected, and we have learned that international cooperation is the best way to overcome the global crises.”

Key measures on nuclear risk-reduction & disarmament and climate stabilization

Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Co-Chair of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, in his opening keynote address, outlined the key challenges associated with nuclear weapons and climate change.

On the nuclear weapons issue, he called for progress on key measures including adoption of a new START treaty to reduce the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the USA, a renewal of the Iran nuclear deal, a renewed dialogue of the P5 (China, France, UK, Russia and USA) in Strategic Stability which should include consideration of the adoption of no-first-use policies. (For more on no-first-use policies see NoFirstUse Global).

On the climate issue, Lord Hannay highlighted the importance of the COP 26 conference in UK in November this year, and the need to ensure monitoring and implementation of climate agreements, which has been lacking so far.

Most important in both nuclear disarmament and climate protection is building political commitment. “We cannot afford to say that the global challenges outlined today are too many to ask the international community to take on at one time,’ said Lord Hannay. ‘We do not realistically have the choice to address them sequentially. We need to find the political will and the resources to deal with them now.”

Impacts of nuclear weapons testing and use

The first panel of the event was on the impacts of nuclear weapons testing and use, but also touched on the impacts of climate change.

Mr Olzhas Omaruly Suleimenov, a highly honoured Kazakh poet and cofounder of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, reported on how the movement closed down the Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan with the help of US and UK legislators and civil society leaders. Speaking specifically to the audience in Central Hall Westminster, Suleimenov said: “I remember how in 1989 and 1990 British parliamentarians were helping us in our cause. I hope that today in the UK you have many opponents not just of nuclear tests but of nuclear weapons themselves.”

And speaking to the global audience participating online for the event, Mr Suleimenov said I hope that the cause we were fighting for in the past will continue to thrive in all countries… Stopping the development of this means of destruction, which is devastating for humanity, must be a joint effort.” (See Olzhas Suleimenov video presentation).

Mr Moetai Brotherson MP. Member of the National Assembly of France, spoke about the devastating impact of French nuclear tests in the Pacific. “When you go to French Polynesia everyone in every family has someone who has died from the consequences of nuclear tests.”  (See Moruroa Files for more information).

Mr Brotherson also noted that the Pacific Islands are also amongst those most impacted by climate change. “In French Polynesia we have 120 islands. Approximately 80 of those islands are at sea level. Rising sea levels are an immediate threat to us – and to other Pacific Island nations. The big countries that tested nuclear weapons and have a responsibility to address the impacts, are also many of the same countries making the most impact on the climate – and they have a responsibility to act to protect the smaller, vulnerable countries that are impacted by the damage they are doing to the climate.

Ms Aigerim Seitenova, Member of the OSCE Core Group of Youth Experts, highlighted the violation of human rights by nuclear testing and use. ‘General Comment 36 of the UN Human Rights Committee on the Right to Life (October 2018), affirmed that the testing and use of nuclear weapons violates this right,” said Ms Seitenova. ‘In addition, nuclear weapons testing and use also violate rights to health and rights to a sustainable environment. The International Court of Justice in 1996 affirmed that the use of nuclear weapons would cause inter-generational damage to human health and long-term and severe damage to the environment.’

Dr Robert Floyd, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, highlighted the importance of the CTBT in preventing nuclear proliferation, protecting the environment and contributing to global security. Indeed, he encouraged everyone to use the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, and the knowledge about the impacts of nuclear tests, to build hope and momentum for nuclear disarmament. “This day provides us with an opportunity to imagine… to image a world free from the threats of nuclear tests and the weapons they create.” (See Dr Floyd video statement).

Nuclear war and climate change

The second panel focused on the impacts of nuclear weapons on the climate, and on the impacts of the nuclear and climate threats on the aspirations and mental health of youth.

Prof Andreas Nidecker MD, a radiologist and Board Member of Physicians for Social Responsibility/IPPNW Switzerland, described the catastrophic climatic consequences of the use of even a small number of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. ‘The most dramatic impact from a small nuclear war would be massive famine – impacting approximately a billion people,’ said Dr Nidecker. ‘In the world we have many hot-spots from where a nuclear war could ignite – the South China Sea, India/Pakistan, Donbas in Europe, North and South Korea, so nuclear war is a reality.”

Ms Marie-Claire Graf, Vice-President of Swiss Youth for Climate, Member of Youth Present and Global North Focal Point for the Children and Youth constituency to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (YOUNGO), noted that in addition to physical health impacts of nuclear weapons and climate change, there are also mental health impacts. ‘We have already seen unprecedented climate events – droughts, heatwaves and floods in Europe, Africa and other regions,’ said Ms Graf. ‘But in addition to this, we are seeing significant anxiety and depression from youth arising from climate impacts and the threat of further deterioration of the climate. UNESCO has report on this recently, but there is still much we do not know. What we do know is that this depression by youth, arising from fear of the future due to climate change, is similar to fears of youth regarding nuclear weapons and the future.’

Move the Nuclear Weapons Money – carbon footprint of the military

The third panel focused on the negative influence of the nuclear arms industry, high carbon footprint of the military, massive budgets and investments allocated to military purposes including nuclear weapons and the importance of shifting these budgets and investments to addressing climate stabilisation and sustainable development. This framework is also the focus of the global Move the Nuclear Weapons Money campaign.

Dr Philip Webber, Chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility, compared the global investment required for to stabilise the climate (about $1trillion annually) with the current investments in climate stabilisation (about $400 billion) and the global military budget (about $2 trillion) to demonstrate that the shortfall is about 1/3 of the global military budget. Dr Weber then focused on the UK situation and demonstrated that the UK investments required to meet a net zero 2030 target would be about an even smaller percentage of the UK military budget.

He also noted that the UK military carbon footprint is about 11 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – equal to the annual emissions of 6 million cars, and that the UK Trident nuclear weapons, if used, would cause catastrophic climatic consequences. Finally, Dr Webber noted that if funds were re-directed from military to climate action, 5 times as many jobs would be created. (See Dr Webber’s presentation - PDF version or Power point version).

Ms Kehkashan Basu, founder of Greenhope Foundation and Member of the World Future Council, highlighted a threat as dangerous as nuclear weapons and climate change – that threat being human apathy. ‘Apathy has enabled the climate crisis and the nuclear threat to grow and fester like a cancer,” said Ms Basu, ‘and apathy enables corporate power to disregard the health of marginalised people adversely impacted by the impact of climate change, nuclear weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic. It allows some to burn billions of dollars on space and military missions while millions of people in developing countries have no access to a covid vaccine.”

Ms Basu also highlighted the relationship between disarmament and eliminating poverty.  “One US dollar equates to a day’s meal for a family of five in indigenous villages in the developing world. Compare that with the $4 billion that goes into making one Trident submarine. Isn’t that gross? To me it is. This nuclear weapons money could be used to ensure that communities have protection from climate change, that they have food to eat, that they do not die because they could not get access to a hospital bed during this pandemic.”

The nuclear-climate nexus and international legal action

The final panel focused on international law and legal actions to prevent nuclear war, achieve nuclear disarmament and stabilise the climate.

Mr Rob van Riet, a lawyer and Senior Advisor for the World Future Council, noted the importance of legal action at the international level on the nuclear weapons issue, and discussed the nuclear weapons cases that have been taken to the International Court of Justice. These include the 1974 Nuclear Tests Case (New Zealand and Australia versus France), the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion on the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, and the 2018 cases of Marshall Islands versus the nine nuclear armed states.

Mr van Riet noted that eve when such cases are legally inconclusive, they can have considerable political impact. The 1974 Nuclear Tests Case, for example, most likely played a role in France’s decision to end atmospheric testing in 1975, and the re-submission of this case by New Zealand to the ICJ in 1995 most likely played a role in France’s announcement in 1996 that they would end nuclear testing altogether and close their nuclear test sites in French Polynesia.

The conclusion of the ICJ in the 1996 Advisory Opinion, that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal under international laws of warfare, has helped strengthen a global norm against the use of nuclear weapons. In addition, the advisory opinion highlighted environmental law and law protecting future generations that could be useful in an ICJ case on climate change.

Ms Nicole Ann Ponce,  a core team member of World's Youth for Climate Justice and Research Fellow for at the Normandy Chair for Peace, noted that in addition to its impacts on the environment, human health and the economy, climate change stimulates conflicts and increases the risk of nuclear war.It is vital to address the nexus of nuclear weapons and climate change,’ said Ms Ponce.Both threaten life on a planetary scale and therefore both require a global response, including legal actions at the international level, in order to protect current and future generations.”

“It is worth noting that the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons referred to the need to protect future generations from the threat of nuclear weapons,” said Ms Ponce. “This has inspired youth from around the world to seek a clarification from the International Court of Justice on the legal responsibility to stabilise the climate in order to protect current and future generations.” (see World's Youth for Climate Justice).

Closing remarks: action to protect people and the planet

Closing remarks were given by Mr Alyn Ware, Global Coordinator for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, and Mr Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan Ambassador to the UK.

The connections between climate change and nuclear weapons that we have discussed today indicate the value of building cooperation between the climate action and nuclear disarmament communities,’ said Mr Ware. Parliamentarians for Nuclear non-proliferation and Disarmament, Youth Fusion and the World Future Council have already been building such cooperation in events, publications and programs including the Move the Nuclear Weapons Money campaign and the PACEY Award (Peace, nuclear Abolition and Climate Engaged Youth).

We are very excited that young climate activists like Nicole and the World's Youth for Climate Justice are learning from the International Court of Justice nuclear weapons cases to now take the issue of climate change to the Court, and we are providing our full support,’ said Mr Ware. “Despite the political forces opposing such a significant move, I am confident that we can get the climate change issue into the Court, that the judges will consider the case – and not dismiss it – that we can win the case and that this will have significant influence to ensure that we stabilise the climate for the benefit of current and future generations.”

In his closing remarks, Ambassador Idrissov reminded the audience of the significance of Central Hall Westminster, the venue for this event. “In this very premises in January 1946, the very first session of the United Nations General Assembly took place,” said Ambassador Idrissov. ‘And the very first resolution adopted by this UN session established a special commission of the Security Council to ensure the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. It is sad that 75 years later, we are still struggling to implement this resolution.”

One of the initiatives of Kazakhstan has been a call on the UN and its member states to commit to achieving the goal of nuclear weapons elimination no later than 2045, the 100th anniversary of the UN. Civil society is supporting this call, and other more immediate nuclear disarmament measures,  with Protect People and the Planet: Appeal for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World (still open for endorsement).

Ambassador Idrissov also commented on the dual threats of climate change and nuclear weapons, the horrific impact of nuclear tests on the health of people, the importance of making progress on climate change policies at COP 26 in November, the importance of inter-generational cooperation and the importance of cutting military spending to instead support climate stabilisation and sustainable development. “Kazakhstan First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in an address to the UN General Assembly, called on all countries to re-direct 1% of military spending to support sustainable development," said Ambassador Idrissov. It’s very simple. Just 1% of military spending would be enough. Why is this so difficult? The money is there. What we lack is political will and trust.”

Ambassador Idrissov concluded the event on a positive note – referring to the example of Kazakhstan voluntarily relinquishing a nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the Soviet Union and becoming a non-nuclear State as an example that nuclear disarmament is indeed possible. “We all come from different corners of the world. We come from different walks in life. We come from different generations,” said Ambassador Idrissov. “Let’s continue to unite our voices. Let’s continue work together to ensure that the lives of future generations – our kids and grandchildren – will truly be safe.”

Event materials

Event cosponsors

The event was organised by Embassy of Kazakhstan in the UK, Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), and Youth Fusion, the youth network of Abolition 2000.