Chomsky: Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change & the Undermining of Democracy Threaten Future of Planet

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As President Trump pulls out of key nuclear agreements with Russia and moves to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Noam Chomsky looks at how the threat of nuclear war remains one of the most pressing issues facing mankind. In a speech at the Old South Church in Boston, Chomsky also discusses the threat of climate change and the undermining of democracy across the globe.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I want to make a couple of remarks below about the severe difficulty of maintaining and instituting democracy, the powerful forces that have always opposed it, the achievements of somehow salvaging and enhancing it, and the significance of that for the future. But first, a couple of words about the challenges that we face, which you heard enough about already and you all know about. I don’t have to go into them in detail. To describe these challenges as “extremely severe” would be an error. The phrase does not capture the enormity of the kinds of challenges that lie ahead. And any serious discussion of the future of humanity must begin by recognizing a critical fact, that the human species is now facing a question that has never before arisen in human history, question that has to be answered quickly: Will human society survive for long?

Well, as you all know, for 70 years we’ve been living under the shadow of nuclear war. Those who have looked at the record can only be amazed that we’ve survived this far. Time after time it’s come extremely close to terminal disaster, even minutes away. It’s kind of a miracle that we’ve survived. Miracles don’t go on forever. This has to be terminated, and quickly. The recent Nuclear Posture Review of the Trump administration dramatically increases the threat of conflagration, which would in fact be terminal for the species. We may remember that this Nuclear Posture Review was sponsored by Jim Mattis, who was regarded as too civilized to be retained in the administration—gives you a sense of what can be tolerated in the Trump-Pompeo-Bolton world.

Well, there were three major arms treaties: the ABM Treaty, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the INF Treaty, Intermediate Nuclear Forces; the New START treaty.

The U.S. pulled out of the ABM Treaty in 2002. And anyone who believes that anti-ballistic missiles are defensive weapons is deluded about the nature of these systems.

The U.S. has just pulled out of the INF Treaty, established by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987, which sharply reduced the threat of war in Europe, which would very quickly spread. The background of that signing of that treaty was the demonstrations that you just saw depicted on the film. Massive public demonstrations were the background for leading to a treaty that made a very significant difference. It’s worth remembering that and many other cases where significant popular activism has made a huge difference. The lessons are too obvious to enumerate. Well, the Trump administration has just withdrawn from the INF Treaty; the Russians withdrew right afterwards. If you take a close look, you find that each side has a kind of a credible case saying that the opponent has not lived up to the treaty. For those who want a picture of how the Russians might look at it, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the major journal on arms control issues, had a lead article a couple weeks ago by Theodore Postol pointing out how dangerous the U.S. installations of anti-ballistic missiles on the Russian border—how dangerous they are and can be perceived to be by the Russians. Notice, on the Russian border. Tensions are mounting on the Russian border. Both sides are carrying out provocative actions. We should—in a rational world, what would happen would be negotiations between the two sides, with independent experts to evaluate the charges that each is making against the other, to lead to a resolution of these charges, restore the treaty. That’s a rational world. But it’s unfortunately not the world we’re living in. No efforts at all have been made in this direction. And they won’t be, unless there is significant pressure.

Well, that leaves the New START treaty. The New START treaty has already been designated by the figure in charge, who has modestly described himself as the greatest president in American history—he gave it the usual designation of anything that was done by his predecessors: the worst treaty that ever happened in human history; we’ve got to get rid of it. If in fact—this comes up for renewal right after the next election, and a lot is at stake. A lot is at stake in whether that treaty will be renewed. It has succeeded in very significantly reducing the number of nuclear weapons, to a level way above what they ought to be but way below what they were before. And it could go on.

Well, meanwhile, global warming proceeds on its inexorable course. During this millennium, every single year, with one exception, has been hotter than the last one. There are recent scientific papers, James Hansen and others, which indicate that the pace of global warming, which has been increasing since about 1980, may be sharply escalating and may be moving from linear growth to exponential growth, which means doubling every couple of decades. We’re already approaching the conditions of 125,000 years ago, when the sea level was about roughly 25 feet higher than it is today, with the melting, the rapid melting, of the Antarctic, huge ice fields. We might—that point might be reached. The consequences of that are almost unimaginable. I mean, I won’t even try to depict them, but you can figure out quickly what that means.

Well, meanwhile, while this is going on, you regularly read in the press euphoric accounts of how the United States is advancing in fossil fuel production. It’s now surpassed Saudi Arabia. We’re in the lead of fossil fuel production. The big banks, JPMorgan Chase and others, are pouring money into new investments in fossil fuels, including the most dangerous, like Canadian tar sands. And this is all presented with great euphoria, excitement. We’re now reaching energy independence. We can control the world, determine the use of fossil fuels in the world.

Barely a word on what the meaning of this is, which is quite obvious. It’s not that the reporters, commentators don’t know about it, that the CEO of the banks don’t know about it. Of course they do. But these are kind of institutional pressures that just are extremely hard to extricate themselves from. You can put yourself in the—try to put yourself in the position of, say, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the biggest bank, which is spending large sums in investment in fossil fuels. He certainly knows everything that you all know about global warming. It’s no secret. But what are the choices? Basically he has two choices. One choice is to do exactly what he’s doing. The other choice is to resign and be replaced by somebody else who will do exactly what he’s doing. It’s not an individual problem. It’s an institutional problem, which can be met, but only under tremendous public pressure.

And we’ve recently seen, very dramatically, how it can—how the solution can be reached. A group of young people, Sunrise Movement, organized, got to the point of sitting in in congressional offices, aroused some interest from the new progressive figures who were able to make it to Congress. Under a lot of popular pressure, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, joined by Ed Markey, actually placed the Green New Deal on the agenda. That’s a remarkable achievement. Of course, it gets hostile attacks from everywhere: It doesn’t matter. A couple of years ago it was unimaginable that it would be discussed. As the result of the activism of this group of young people, it’s now right in the center of the agenda. It’s got to be implemented in one form or another. It’s essential for survival, maybe not in exactly that form, but some modification of it. Tremendous change achieved by the commitment of a small group of young people. That tells you the kind of thing that can be done.

Meanwhile, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last January was set at two minutes to midnight. That’s the closest it’s been to terminal disaster since 1947. The announcement of the settlement—of the setting mentioned the two major familiar threats: the threat of nuclear war, which is increasing, threat of global warming, which is increasing further. And it added a third for the first time: the undermining of democracy. That’s the third threat, along with global warming and nuclear war. And that was quite appropriate, because functioning democracy offers the only hope of overcoming these threats. They are not going to be dealt with by major institutions, state or private, acting without massive public pressure, which means that the means of democratic functioning have to be kept alive, used the way the Sunshine Movement did it, the way the great mass demonstration in the early ’80s did it, and the way we continue today.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky, speaking at the Old South Church in Boston in April. When we return from break, I speak to him about the arrest of Julian Assange, the Israeli elections, the war in Yemen and more.

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