AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – While street promoters for a new television series proclaimed the “end is nigh” and urged SXSW attendees to come have one “last” drink from a wine-dispensing tree Friday afternoon, nuclear weapons experts on one of the festival’s panels said the world might avoid destroying itself by reprioritizing arms control and bringing in new voices to nuclear nonproliferation discussions.
At the “How to Avoid a Nuclear Apocalypse” panel at the SXSW Interactive Festival, experts said that, presently, the risk nuclear weapons might be deployed is as high as it has ever been as the U.S. pulls out of arms control treaties and President Donald Trump boasts about the size of his “nuclear button.”
“We are currently at the beginning of a new arms race and what is being characterized as the new Cold War,” Mareena Robinson Snowden said.
The U.S. has 6,800 nuclear weapons and is slated to spend $1 trillion in the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear weapons system, an investment that could keep the country’s nuclear program running for several more decades. Russia has 7,000 nuclear weapons and seven other countries have nukes as well.
“In the minds of some people, it’s a posture, this idea that we would never actually use these weapons, these are systems that we use to influence, to deter,” Robinson Snowden said.
The nuclear engineer and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow said there are “cracks” in the logic that having nuclear weapons will deter destruction and violence, pointing to the latest military skirmishes between India and Pakistan – both contestants in the nuclear arms race.
Beatrice Fihn, who runs the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also dismissed deterrence as a solution said it’s “stupid and naive” to think countries can threaten each other with their nuclear stockpiles forever and “nothing will ever go wrong.”
“It’s extremely dangerous to see disarmament as weak, but that’s one of the key problems we have in the world: that violence is seen as strength and rational, particularly violence that could end us all,” Fihn said. “You can’t fight climate change with nuclear weapons, you can’t fight organized crime or terrorism with nuclear weapons.”
The four panelists, all women, agreed the decisions about nuclear weapons have historically been – and continue to be – made primarily by white men.
Bonnie Jenkins, who was an ambassador at the State Department and coordinated threat reduction programs at the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, said world leaders need to make space for individuals who have different and modern ways of thinking about the nuclear weapons issue.
“It’s not surprising that a lot of decisions about where we test and the ramifications of where we test and the results of what we test are going to be felt more predominantly by those who don’t have power,” Jenkins said.
Historically, countries have conducted nuclear weapons tests in parts of the world that are home to minority and socio-economically disadvantaged people.
France tested its weapons in Algeria and French Polynesia; the United Kingdom tested on aboriginal lands in Australia. Native Americans in the Southwest are still dealing with the effects of living near uranium mines and nuclear test sites, and former residents of the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands have lived in exile since the U.S. tested weapons there more than 60 years ago.
In Kazakhstan, near the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk test site, one in every 20 children is born with serious physical deformities or other health issues, and the majority of the population dies before reaching the age of 60.
“There’s conversations to be had about consent … indigenous peoples rights,” Robinson Snowden said. “We didn’t prioritize those questions, but now, moving forward, we have a responsibility to ask and answer those questions.”
Fihn said there’s hope: 70 countries have signed and 20 have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the United Nations in 2017. The treaty is the first legally binding international agreement prohibiting the ownership of nuclear weapons.
“The vast majority of states do not have nuclear weapons, and that’s very important to remember, because sometimes we think that these weapons are normal,” Fihn said. “They are not. The vast majority of countries in the world do not believe that these weapons can protect us or provide security, don’t think that they are acceptable, and that’s sometimes something that can get lost when we are very obsessed with Trump and Kim and Putin.”
Ultimately, Jenkins said, American taxpayers are footing the bill for the U.S. nuclear program.
“What are we not spending that money on?” Jenkins said. “Think about how it affects you, how you can push this issue with your representatives and find ways to get engaged.”