COP25: UN Climate Change Conference, 5 Things You Need to Know

Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By External Source
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 29 2019 – Climate change is happening—the world is already 1.1°C warmer than it was at the onset of the industrial revolution, and it is already having a significant impact on the world, and on people’s lives. And if current trends persist, then global temperatures can be expected to rise by 3.4 to 3.9°C this century, which would bring wide-ranging and destructive climate impacts.

That’s the stark warning from the international community ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP25, which gets underway in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on 2 December. So, just two months after the Secretary-General convened a major Climate Action Summit at UN Headquarters in New York, what can be expected from COP25?

 

1. We just had the Climate Action Summit in New York. How is COP25 different?

The Climate Action Summit in September was the initiative of the UN Secretary-General to focus the attention of the international community on the climate emergency and to accelerate actions to reverse climate change. The Climate Conference (held in Madrid after the meeting was moved from Chile due to unrest there), COP25, is the actual Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, which is tasked with making sure that the Convention, (and now the 2015 Paris Agreement, which strengthens the Convention), are being implemented.

 

COP25: UN climate change conference, 5 things you need to know

2. But why all the UN attention on the climate?

There is more evidence of the impacts of climate change, especially in extreme weather events, and these impacts are taking a greater toll.  The science shows that emissions are still going up, not down.

According to the 2019 WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high. This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned, in its 2019 Emissions Gap Report, that greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 are needed to meet the internationally agreed goal of a 1.5°C increase in temperatures over pre-industrial levels. Scientists agree that’s a tall order, and that the window of opportunity is growing smaller.

 

3. So what did the September Climate Action Summit achieve?

The summit served as a springboard ahead of crucial 2020 deadlines established by the Paris Agreement, focusing global attention on the climate emergency and the urgent need to significantly scale up action. And leaders, from many countries and sectors, stepped up.

COP25 is the final COP before we enter the defining year of 2020, when many nations must submit new climate action plans. Among the many elements that need to be ironed out is the financing of climate action worldwide

More than seventy countries committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, even if major emitters have not yet done so.  More than 100 cities did the same, including several of the world’s largest.

Small island states together committed to achieve carbon neutrality and to move to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.  And countries from Pakistan to Guatemala, Colombia to Nigeria, New Zealand to Barbados vowed to plant more than 11 billion trees.

More than 100 leaders in the private sector committed to accelerating the green economy. A group of the world’s largest asset-owners, controlling $2 trillion, pledged to move to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050. This is in addition to a recent call by asset managers representing nearly half the world’s invested capital, some $34 trillion, for global leaders to put a meaningful price on carbon and phase out fossil fuel subsidies and thermal coal power worldwide.

 

4. Hang on: UNEP, WMO, IPCC, UNFCCC, COP…why all the acronyms?

It’s true that the UN is a very acronym-heavy place. These ones all represent international tools and agencies that, under the leadership of the UN, were created to help advance climate action globally. Here’s how they fit together.

UNEP is the UN Environment Programme, the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. WMO stands for World Meteorological Office, the UN agency for international cooperation in areas such as weather forecasting, observing changes in the climate, and studying water resources.

In 1988 the UN General Assembly asked UNEP and the WMO to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is made of hundreds of experts, in order to assess data, and providing reliable scientific evidence for climate action negotiations.

All three UN bodies publish reports that, in recent years, have frequently made international headlines, as concerns about the climate crisis have grown.

As for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), this document was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system.

Today, 197 countries are parties to the treaty. Every year since the treaty entered into force in 1994, a “conference of the parties”, or COP, has been held to discuss how to move forward. Madrid will hold the 25th COP, therefore COP25.

 

5. And what’s important about this COP?

Because the UNFCCC had non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and no enforcement mechanism, various extensions to this treaty were negotiated during recent COPs, including most recently the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries agreed to step up efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures and boost climate action financing.

COP25 is the final COP before we enter the defining year of 2020, when many nations must submit new climate action plans. Among the many elements that need to be ironed out is the financing of climate action worldwide.

Currently, not enough is being done to meet the three climate goals: reducing emissions 45 per cent by 2030; achieving climate neutrality by 2050 (which means a net zero carbon footprint), and stabilizing global temperature rise at 1.5°C by the end of the century.

Because the clock is ticking on climate change, the world cannot afford to waste more time, and a bold, decisive, ambitious way forward needs to be agreed.

 

This story was originally published by UN News

Net Closes on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Killers, Sending a Powerful Signal of No Impunity for Corruption

Flowers, candles and tributes to Daphne Caruana Galizia left at the foot of the Great Siege Monument, opposite the Law Courts in Valletta. Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most prominent investigative journalist, was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 outside her home in the village of Bidnija. Courtesy: Continentaleurope/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Nov 29 2019 – Press freedom campaigners and journalists in Malta are hoping they could soon see justice for murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – and that a powerful message will be sent across Europe that a free press can deny corrupt officials the power to act with impunity.

Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most prominent investigative journalist, was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 outside her home in the village of Bidnija. Her investigations had exposed high-level government corruption linked to businesses.

Until just a few weeks ago investigators had made what critics attacked as scant progress in bringing her killers to justice. But since then there has been a flurry of arrests and ministerial resignations and the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, is under pressure to resign.

And with a key figure in the case now reportedly giving investigators vital information on who was involved in the killing, many are hoping that the person who ordered the murder could soon be identified, paving the way for prosecutions and opening up a new chapter in press freedom in Malta and sending a message to other countries.

“Things are moving fast in Malta, so we are hopeful that there may be a resolution to this soon,” said Pauline Ades-Mevel, Head of the European Union and Balkan Desk at global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“If the mastermind and hitman and middleman were to be prosecuted, if the case were to be solved, it would have an enormous impact on press freedom in Malta.

“But it would also send an equally powerful signal to countries across Europe because it would show that journalists and organisations like ours are the stone in the shoe of people who think they can act with impunity. They cannot get rid of us,” she told IPS.

Caruana Galizia’s murder made headlines across the world not only because it focused attention on the rule of law in Malta but because it took place in an EU country.

Groups like RSF have warned in recent reports that Europe is “no longer a sanctuary” for journalists and there has been a documented rise in attacks on journalists and an erosion of press freedom across the continent in recent years.

Just months after Caruana Galizia’s death, Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were shot dead at their home in Velka Maca in Western Slovakia.

Like Caruana Galizia, Kuciak had investigated alleged corruption at the highest levels of government and had been working on a story about ties between the Italian mafia and Slovak politicians at the time of his death.

Protests in the wake of the killing led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Robert Fico, while a subsequent police investigation has led to a prominent local businessman, Marian Kocner, being charged with ordering Kuciak’s assassination.

A few months after Caruana Galizia’s killing, three men were arrested and charged with planting the bomb that killed her. But two years after her murder they had not faced trial, nor had anyone else been arrested in connection with the murder.

The authorities’ handling of the case and efforts to bring her killers to justice had been criticised, not least by her family, with questions raised over the arrest of the three men.

The Maltese government agreed to launch a public inquiry in October under pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

But local journalists questioned the independence of the enquiry, citing potential conflicts of interest among its senior board members.

Meanwhile, on the two-year anniversary of her death, RSF released a report saying the situation for journalists in Malta was ‘dire’ – a claim the Maltese government publicly dismissed at the time – and noted that Malta had dropped 30 places in its World Press Freedom Index since 2017.

“It is very difficult to do investigative journalism in Malta, the journalists who are doing it are working under pressure, conditions are difficult,” Ades-Mevel told IPS.

But this month has seen dramatic and rapid developments in the case with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, a powerful local businessman, and the subsequent resignation of the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Keith Schembri, in the murder.

Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and Economy Minister Chris Cardona have also stepped down since Fenech’s arrest. Following the release of the Panama Papers in 2016 Caruana Galizia had accused Mizzi and Fenech of corruption linked to ownership of secret shell companies in Panama.

Muscat and Schembri are close friends and the Prime Minister, who is still pursuing libel claims against the dead journalist and her family after she accused him of corruption, had repeatedly rejected calls to sack Schembri when allegations of corruption first emerged years ago.

Schembri was arrested earlier this week amid suggestions Fenech had provided evidence implicating in the murder. But he was released – to the fury of opposition politicians and protestors who claimed he was being protected by the Prime Minister – soon after without charge.

Protests in the capital Valletta in recent days have drawn tens of thousands calling for the Prime Minister to step down.

Muscat has said that he will not leave office until the people who ordered the killing have been identified.

He has also, in stark contrast to police officials or the attorney general, made daily statements on the latest developments in the Caruana Galizia case, including about possible pardons.

This has raised concerns about political interference in the investigation and in a joint statement, ten international press freedom organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), RSF, and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), echoed demands made by PACE that Muscat step away from the investigation.

“Malta has clear legal obligations to ensure an independent, impartial investigation into the assassination of its leading journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. There must be no executive interference in the investigation,” the groups wrote.

“What is worrying is that for the last week the only person who has been commenting on what is going on is the Prime Minister. By putting himself at the centre of the investigation, there is a risk of political interference in the investigation,” Ades-Mevel told IPS.

It is unclear at the moment whether the Prime Minister will clearly step back from the investigation or whether any further arrests are imminent. Further public protests are already planned, however.

In the meantime, some local journalists are cautiously optimistic over the path of current events in Malta.

“There is hope that there could finally be justice for Daphne. Protestors are demanding the Prime Minister step down, and they are also demanding that justice is done and seen to be done,” said Nigel Mifsud, General Secretary of the Institute of Maltese Journalists.

“But this is all in the early stages of the investigation,” he told IPS.

What is clear though is that many people now believe the claims, made by journalists like Caruana Galizia, of corruption at the highest levels.

In a statement earlier this week Malta’s Chamber of Commerce said that “the extent to which criminal activity had infiltrated the circles of power and operated unperturbed for years” was now clear.

“What Daphne wrote about and alleged is being proved now to be true,” said Mifsud. “It has been proved that the work she was doing and the claims she made were correct.”

He added: “One thing I believe all this will do is that that journalists will gain in credibility and social standing here. If this is hopefully resolved, people will see that what journalists do is useful, it brings results. It will also show that people cannot act with impunity and that there will be journalists there to keep a check on them.”

He also said that if the investigation continues and the person who ordered the killing is brought to trial and convicted, it could help press freedom in other countries.

“I hope that what is happening here could be a positive example for other countries.

“Some people said that we would never even get to this stage, that the murder would never be solved. The fact that we have even got to this stage now is something and journalists in other countries can look and see that what they are doing is worthwhile, that their work and investigations can bring results.”

Cabo Verde’s Morna for UNESCO list, Belgium’s Carnival of Aalst to Go?

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Nov 29 2019 – Morna, the haunting, traditional music of Cabo Verde, is slated to join UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List when a committee meets in Bogotá, Colombia, Dec. 9 to 14, to consider submissions from around the world.

Made popular by singers such as the renowned Cesária Évora, who died in 2011, morna incorporates voice, music, poetry and dance, and it has fans far beyond the Portuguese-speaking island state where it originated.

Being added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (to give the list its full name) would promote recognition of morna’s value, according to the artistic agencies behind the submission.

Inscription would also raise awareness of the “fundamental” mark that morna has made in “contemporary history and Cabo Verdean cultural identity”, they add.

 Morna, the haunting, traditional music of Cabo Verde, is slated to join UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List when a committee meets in Bogotá, Colombia, Dec. 9 to 14, to consider submissions from around the world.

One of Cesaria Evora’s most famous albums (Lusafrica).

The musical practice is one of 41 elements up for consideration at the annual meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Composed of representatives of 24 states, the committee will vote on submissions including: date-palm knowledge, skills, traditions and practices in several Middle Eastern and North African countries; Byzantine chant of Cyprus, Greece; Ethiopian epiphany; Irish harping; and Kwagh-Hir theatrical performance of Nigeria – a cultural expression that “integrates puppetry, masquerading, poetry, music, dance” and other genres.

Apart from voting on these elements, the committee is expected to take unprecedented action in removing Belgium’s Carnival of Aalst from the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, as the event has been criticised for racist depictions.

During the March 2019 staging of the carnival, racist and anti-Semitic caricatures were displayed on some floats, according to human rights groups. Previously, as far back as 2013, UNESCO received complaints about the offensive nature of some aspects of the carnival, which was inscribed on the List in 2010.

“Since its inscription, the Aalst carnival has on several occasions displayed messages, images and representations that can be considered within and outside of the community as encouraging stereotypes, mocking certain groups and insulting the memories of painful historical experiences including genocide, slavery and racial segregation,” the committee states in documents on the subject.

“These representations are racist,” said UNESCO official Tim Curtis, following a press briefing in Paris Nov. 27. Curtis, the secretary of the Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, told SWAN that the carnival’s organizers have shown little interest in addressing the issue.

In fact, the event’s organizing committee is reported to have “prepared a set of ribbons as collectors’ items, which depict once again several stereotypical representations … The accompanying text makes fun of UNESCO and reaffirms that the Aalst carnival should continue in the same spirit of satire and mockery”, according to UNESCO documents.

While the carnival may be delisted, another of Belgium’s customs is up for selection – the Ommegang procession in Brussels. This follows the addition of the country’s beer-drinking culture to the List in 2016, one of 429 elements inscribed globally up to now.

Such elements include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and the knowledge and skills necessary for traditional crafts.

The aim is to promote the preservation of cultural practices or living expressions inherited from generation to generation, UNESCO says.

The delisting of the carnival may garner attention, but news about Cabo Verde’s morna should also be greeted with celebration, as with the inscription of reggae music of Jamaica in 2018.

Article used by permission of Southern World Arts News

 

Water Is Worth More than Milk in Extrema, Brazil

Elias Cardoso is proud of the restored forests on his 67-hectare farm, where he has protected and reforested a dozen springs as well as streams. "I was a guinea pig for the Water Conservator project, they called me crazy," when the mayor's office was not yet paying for it in Extrema, a municipality in southeastern Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Elias Cardoso is proud of the restored forests on his 67-hectare farm, where he has protected and reforested a dozen springs as well as streams. “I was a guinea pig for the Water Conservator project, they called me crazy,” when the mayor’s office was not yet paying for it in Extrema, a municipality in southeastern Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
EXTREMA, Brazil, Nov 29 2019 – “They called me crazy” for fencing in the area where the cows went to drink water, said Elias Cardoso, on his 67-hectare farm in Extrema, a municipality 110 km from São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis.

“I realized the water was going to run out, with cattle trampling the spring. Then I fenced in the springs and streams,” said the 60-year-old rancher. “But I left gates to the livestock drinking areas.”

Cardoso was a pioneer, getting the jump on the Water Conservancy Project, launched by the local government in 2005 with the support of the international environmental organisation The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Institute of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, where Extrema, population 36,000, is located at the southern tip.

The project follows the fundamentals of the National Water Agency‘s Water Producer Programme, which focuses on different ways to preserve water resources and improve their quality, such as measures to conserve soil, preventing sedimentation of rivers and lakes.

But at the core of the project is the Payments for Environmental Services (PES), which in the case of Extrema compensate rural landowners for land they no longer use for crops or livestock, to restore forests or protect with fences.

The “Water Conservator” (Conservador das Águas) began operating in 2007, with contracts offered by the PES to farmers who reforest and protect springs, riverbanks and hilltops, which are numerous in Extrema because it is located in the Sierra de Mantiqueira, a chain of mountains that extends for about 100,000 square km.

“Then everyone jumped on board,” Cardoso said, referring to the project in the Arroyo das Posses basin, where he lives and where the environmental and water initiative began and had the biggest impact.

View of the new landscape in the hilly area around Extrema, after the reforestation of thousands of hectares in three basins in this municipality in southeastern Brazil, where the local government has fomented the process of recovery by paying landowners for environmental services. The priority is to restore the forests at the headwaters of the rivers and on hilltops and protect them with cattle fences. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

View of the new landscape in the hilly area around Extrema, after the reforestation of thousands of hectares in three basins in this municipality in southeastern Brazil, where the local government has fomented the process of recovery by paying landowners for environmental services. The priority is to restore the forests at the headwaters of the rivers and on hilltops and protect them with cattle fences. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

In the 14 years since it was launched, the project has only worked fully in three basins, where two million trees were planted and close to 500 springs were protected. It is now being extended to seven other watersheds.

“The goal is to reach 40 percent of forest cover with native species” in the municipality and “so far we already have 25 percent covered, and 10 percent is thanks to the Water Conservator,” said Paulo Henrique Pereira, promoter of the project as Environment Secretary in Extrema since 1995.

“Planting trees is easy, creating a forest is more complex,” the 50-year-old biologist told IPS, stressing that it’s not just about planting trees to “produce” and conserve water.

The project began with the prospecting of areas and the training of technicians, after the approval of a municipal PES statute, since there is no national law on remunerated environmental services.

“The bottleneck is that there is no skilled workforce” to reforest and implement water conservation measures, Pereira said.

The project now has its own nursery for the large-scale production of seedlings of native tree species, to avoid the past dependence on external acquisitions or donations, which drove up costs and made planning more complex.

Since 2005 Paulo Henrique Pereira, Secretary of Environment in Extrema since 1995, has promoted the Water Conservator Project, which has won national and international awards for its success in recovering and preserving springs and streams, by paying for environmental services to rural landowners who reforest in this municipality in southeastern Brazil. "Planting trees is easy, creating a forest is more complex," he says. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Since 2005 Paulo Henrique Pereira, Secretary of Environment in Extrema since 1995, has promoted the Water Conservator Project, which has won national and international awards for its success in recovering and preserving springs and streams, by paying for environmental services to rural landowners who reforest in this municipality in southeastern Brazil. “Planting trees is easy, creating a forest is more complex,” he says. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The success of Extrema’s project, which has won dozens of national and international good practice awards, “is due to good management, which does not depend on the continuity of government,” said the biologist, although he admitted that it helped that he had been in the local Secretariat of the Environment for 24 years and that the mayors were of the same political orientation.

“It is a well-established project that is not likely to suffer setbacks,” he said.

The fact that the project offers both environmental and economic benefits helps keep it alive.

“My grandfather, who spent his life deforesting his property, initially rejected the project. It didn’t make sense to him to plant the same trees he had felled to make pasture for cattle,” said Aline Oliveira, a 19-year-old engineering student who is proud of the quality of life achieved in Extrema.

“When I was a girl, I didn’t accept the idea of protecting springs to preserve water either. I thought it was absurd to plant trees to increase water, because planting 200 or 300 trees would consume a lot of water. That was how I used to think, but then in practice I saw that springs survived in intact forest areas,” she said.

Later, when the PES arrived in the area, her grandfather gave in and more than 10 springs on the 112-hectare farm were reforested and protected. The payment is 100 municipal monetary units per hectare each year, currently equivalent to about 68 dollars.

Aline Oliveira studies engineering and lives on her family's farm in southeastern Brazil. She is proud of the way life has improved in Extrema, a process that began with the establishment of the Payments for Environmental Services system, which guarantees income to farmers and ranchers for reforesting watersheds. It is a secure income at a time of falling milk prices and in a town far from the dairy processing plants. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Aline Oliveira studies engineering and lives on her family’s farm in southeastern Brazil. She is proud of the way life has improved in Extrema, a process that began with the establishment of the Payments for Environmental Services system, which guarantees income to farmers and ranchers for reforesting watersheds. It is a secure income at a time of falling milk prices and in a town far from the dairy processing plants. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

“The PES is a secure income, while milk prices have dropped, and everything has become more expensive than milk in the last 10 years. In addition, there were losses due to lack of transportation, since there is no major dairy processing plant within 50 km,” she told IPS.

Thanks to the municipal payments, “we were able to invest in cows with better genetics, buy a milking parlor and improve health care for the cattle, thus increasing productivity,” which compensated for the reduction in pastures, added the student, who works for the project.

The programme coincided with a major improvement in the economy and quality of life in Extrema. “I was born in Joanópolis, where there were better hospitals than in Extrema. But now it’s the other way around” and people from there come to Extrema, 20 km away, for heath care, Oliveira said.

This is also due to the industrialisation experienced by Extrema in recent decades, which becomes evident during a walk around the town, where many new industrial plants can be seen.

The water conservation project has also contributed to the water supply for a huge population in the surrounding area.

Arlindo Cortês, head of environmental management at Extrema's Secretariat of the Environment, stands in the nursery where seedlings are grown for reforestation in this municipality in southeastern Brazil. "Building reservoirs does not ensure water supply if the watershed is deforested, degraded, sedimented. There will be floods and water shortages because the rainwater doesn't infiltrate the soil," he explains. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Arlindo Cortês, head of environmental management at Extrema’s Secretariat of the Environment, stands in the nursery where seedlings are grown for reforestation in this municipality in southeastern Brazil. “Building reservoirs does not ensure water supply if the watershed is deforested, degraded, sedimented. There will be floods and water shortages because the rainwater doesn’t infiltrate the soil,” he explains. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The Jaguari River, which crosses Extrema, receives water from fortified streams and increases the capacity of the Jaguari reservoir, part of the Cantareira system, which supplies 7.5 million people in greater São Paulo, one-third of the total population of the metropolis.

“If the watersheds are deforested, degraded and sedimented, merely building reservoirs solves nothing,” said Arlindo Cortês, the head of environmental management at Extrema’s Secretariat of the Environment.

Extrema’s efforts have translated into local benefits, but contributed little to the water supply in São Paulo, partly because it is over 100 km away, said Marco Antonio Lopez Barros, superintendent of Water Production for the Metropolitan Region at the local Sanitation Company, Sabesp.

“No increase in the capacity of the Cantareira System has been identified since the 1970s,” he said in an interview with IPS.

“Thousands of similar initiatives will be necessary” to actually have an impact in São Paulo, because of the level of consumption by its 22 million inhabitants, he said, adding that improvements in basic sanitation in cities have greater effects.

São Paulo experienced a water crisis, with periods of rationing, after the 2014 drought in south-central Brazil, and faces new threats this year, as it has rained less than average.

Extrema also felt the shortage. “Since 2014 we have only had weak rains,” said Cardoso. The problem is the destruction of forests by the expansion of cattle ranching in the last three decades.

“The creek where I used to swim has lost 90 percent of its water. The recovery will take 50 years, the benefits will only be felt by our children,” he said.

Nuclear False Warnings & the Risk of Catastrophe

Former Titan II Missile in its silo, Sahuarita, Arizona. Credit: The Titan Missile Museum

By Daryl G. Kimball
WASHINGTON DC, Nov 29 2019 – Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). U.S. bomber and missile forces went on full alert, and the emergency command post, known as the “doomsday plane,” took to the air.

At 3 a.m., National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a call from his military assistant. He was told that NORAD computers were reporting that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States.

According to Brzezinski, just one minute before he planned to call President Jimmy Carter to recommend an immediate U.S. nuclear retaliatory response, word came through that the NORAD message was a false alarm caused by software simulating a Soviet missile attack that was inexplicably transferred into the live warning system at the command’s headquarters.

The 1979 incident was one of the most dangerous false alarms of the nuclear age, but it was not the first or the last. Within months, three more U.S. system malfunctions set off the U.S. early-warning systems.

The Soviet Union also experienced false alarms. On Sept. 26, 1983, a newly installed early-warning system erroneously signaled that the United States had launched a small salvo of missiles toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge that night, would later report that he defied standard military protocol and refused to pass the alert to Moscow because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”

On Jan. 25, 1995, a large weather rocket launched off the coast of Norway created the appearance on Russian radars of an initial phase of a U.S. nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reported that the launch prompted him to activate Russia’s mobile nuclear command system.

Although the Cold War standoff that gave rise to massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals ended decades ago, the nuclear strategies that could lead to the firing of hundreds of nuclear weapons remain susceptible to false alarms.

Today, each side deploys some 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads on hundreds of sea- and land-based missiles and long-range bombers—far greater than is necessary to deter an attack and more than enough to produce catastrophic devastation.

Each side maintains hundreds of warheads that can be fired within minutes of a launch order from the president, and both leaders retain the option to retaliate before they confirm that nuclear weapons have been detonated on their territory.

These dangerous launch-under-attack postures perpetuate the risk that false alarms could trigger a massive nuclear exchange.

Complicating matters, Washington and Moscow each reserve the option to employ nuclear weapons first in a crisis or conventional conflict. Each possesses hundreds of so-called tactical nuclear bombs, which produce relatively smaller explosive yields, for use on the battlefield. Both sides regularly conduct drills and exercises involving their respective nuclear forces.

Today, U.S. and Russian leaders have a responsibility to pursue immediate and decisive actions to reduce these grave risks. To start, they should invite all nuclear-armed states to affirm the 1985 pledge made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Given the risks of escalation, no plausible circumstance could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. All nuclear-armed states should announce policies that rule out the first use of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons before nuclear use on their soil has been confirmed.

In fact, the dangerous launch-under-attack policies of the United States and Russia are unnecessary because a large portion of their nuclear forces could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of their forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Another key line of defense against nuclear catastrophe is dialogue. Washington and Moscow can and should resume a regular military and political dialogue on strategic stability.

Such talks can avoid miscalculation over issues such as the use or nonuse of cyberattacks against nuclear command-and-control systems, missile defense capabilities and doctrine, nuclear launch exercises, and more. Similar talks with China should also be pursued.

Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin also should promptly agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by five years, as allowed by the treaty, and begin talks on a follow-on deal to set lower limits on all types of nuclear weaponry.

Without the treaty, which expires in 2021, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972; and the likelihood of a dangerous, all-out nuclear arms race would grow.

We were lucky the false alarms of the Cold War did not trigger nuclear war. Because we may not be so lucky in the future, our leaders must act now to take the steps necessary to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger.