Dirty Bombs: From stolen Nuclear material or from emitted Carbon-warheads?

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Many dispute the veracity of the origin of the phrase ‘swan-song’, which signifies a final performance or efforts, just before the death or retirement. Socrates, Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci and even Shakespeare has referred to the distinct and melodious notes of dying swan whereas many scientists consider it to be too poetic to be true.

A nuclear swan song played by President Obama in Washington DC on 1st April, at the fourth, and many experts claim to be final, Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), sounded more like an unmusical replete with octaves to build a presidential legacy than being poetic.

The singular credit of conceiving and championing the Nuclear Security Summits unarguably goes to President Obama. In 2009, he called nuclear terrorism as one of the greatest threats to international security and initiated global dialogue. The first summit was held in 2010, where about 50 world leaders drew Washington Work Plan to contain, prevent and counter nuclear terrorism by better protecting nuclear radiating sources from theft and misuses like making ‘dirty bombs’.

The unique feature of the this fourth and last NSS was not that it was taking place few months before Obama says good-bye to his presidential tenure, nor that it was taking place at the backdrop of deadly terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Lahore. It is not even that the threat of ‘dirty nuclear bombs’ is looming large due to non-state ISI army and unending intimidations by State-actor, North Korea.

The most harrowing backdrop of the NSS, ironically, is the impending threat of ‘runaway’ Climate Change. The perils of ‘dirty carbon bombs’ are now more deadly than dirty nuclear bombs. ‘Carbon-warhead’ is no longer a symbolic phrase. Such warheads are in making for last two centuries without any abatement thanks to the fossil fuel addiction of all the State-actors. The global efforts to arrest the carbon-proliferation by United Nations have failed miserably.

Runaway climate change is now considered as real tipping point in accelerated global warming signaling a chaotic climatic disaster of planetary proportion. It is predicted to happen when, for example, melting of the polar ice and Siberian snow would allow the Green House Gases (GHGs) like methane and carbon dioxide hitherto buried under permafrost to escape into atmosphere triggering sudden and rapid climate change, rise in global temperatures and causing catastrophic havoc.

Just in about four months after Paris climate agreement there have been rapid-fire impacts due to the human induced carbon missiles launched in the atmosphere over more than two centuries since advent of the industrial revolution.

In the beginning of this year, World Meteorological Organization released the report that 2015 was the hottest year on record. 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Scientists predicted with unusual certainty that 2016 would be yet another record hot year.

In February, flooding due to rise in sea level in American cities like Miami and Charleston and floods in Europe have caused much more disruption in daily life than the floods of migrants.

In March, well known climatologists, including James Hansen, known for his advocacy of action to avoid runaway climate change, alerted that impacts of climate change would be so abrupt, that most of humanity would be caught napping with little time to protect from tidal flooding, severe droughts and other extreme events.

Come April and we are presented with yet one more horrifying prediction, twice as scary as in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in none other than journal Nature authored by researchers in University of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania State University: If carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels continue unremitting , West Antarctic ice would disintegrate, causing the sea to rise by five to six feet by 2100, destroying many of the coastal cities habited by more than 70 percent of global population apart from sinking of low-lying island nations within the lifetimes of children born today.

Arctic-winter that just ended has seen annual ice coverage hit its lowest level ever recorded over last two winters due to sustained global warming, as observed by the European Space Agency.

NSS has been flaunting its achievements over last 5 years: the removal of 3.2 metric of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the civilian space in 14 countries, thereby reducing the risk of nuclear thefts and production of country grade weapons, amended nuclear protection treaty, and the historic nuclear deal with Iran that has, so far, gone as planned. However, refusal of Russian President Putin to join this summit has left open the cracks in this fragile coalition, wondering if United Nations is the right forum for such summits rather than individual country’s leadership.

 However, many experts believe that nuclear material is lying in Siberian forests and strewed in old Soviet premises and elsewhere, unattended after Soviet break up of 1991. As per the President of Georgia, one of the states under Soviet, there have been more than 20 cases of nuclear theft till now and fifty persons have been prosecuted.

It will be unwise and futile to compare the risks due to nuclear and climatic disasters. The impacts of nuclear dirty bombs would be horrendous but localized. As per technical experts including former nuclear advisor to President Obama Gary Samore, dirty bombs, though, are easy to make if one accesses the material, it wouldn’t kill a lot of people-at first. “It’s nothing like the immediate effect of a suicide vest in a crowded airport,” he adds. That could be the reason why Islamic State militants haven’t used dirty bombs till now.

That brings us to a dire need of global security summits needed to prevent ‘dirty carbon bombs’. These bombs would not only bring runaway global warming closer but also bring the polluted air we breathe to runway air pollution that London witnessed in 1952. The impacts of use of dirty energy and carbon emission would be, in contrast to nuclear country-bombs, all pervasive and global in nature with possible sixth extinction as per Paul Crutzen, Nobel Laureate who paraphrased ‘anthropocene’.

Just 21 days after the fourth NSS in Washington DC, yet another swan-song will be played at summit at United Nations Headquarter in New York on 22nd April, by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who is also ending his tenure in 2016. He has convened a signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement on climate change that was adopted unanimously in Dec 2016. We are yet to record the achievements of more than two decades of the series of climate summits under United Nations, as there are not many. The tragedy is that there is no guarantee that signing ceremony of 22nd April will consummate the universal climate deal agreed in Paris. Will it be song of dying swan?

D.G. Elliot, an American zoologist shot down in 1898, a swan that began its glided-descent in wounded condition. Swan began a long flight down to earth during which, Elliot wrote, it issued a series of “plaintive and musical” notes that “sounded at times like the soft running of the notes of an octave”. After all, sawn-songs are indeed real songs of dying swan. END

By Rajendra Shende, IIT Alumni, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Former Director UNEP


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