The Slow-Motion Equivalent of a Nuclear War?


Image of nuclear protest with people in hazmat suits on the ground.

Image by Ra Dragon.

Tell me, what planet are we actually on? All these decades later, are we really involved in a “second” or “new” Cold War? It’s certainly true that, as late as the 1980s, the superpowers (or so they then liked to think of themselves), the United States and the Soviet Union, were still engaged in just such a Cold War, something that might have seemed almost positive at the time. After all, a “hot” one could have involved the use of the planet’s two great nuclear arsenals and the potential obliteration of just about everything.

But today? In case you haven’t noticed, the phrase “new Cold War” or “second Cold War” has indeed crept into our media vocabulary. (Check it out at Wikipedia.) Admittedly, unlike John F. Kennedy, Joe Biden has not actually spoken about bearing “the burden of a long, twilight struggle.” Still, the actions of his foreign policy crew — in spirit, like the president, distinctly old Cold Warriors — have helped make the very idea that we’re in a new version of just such a conflict part of everyday media chatter.

And yet, let’s stop and think about just what planet we’re actually on. In the wake of August 6 and August 9, 1945, when two atomic bombs destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was little doubt about how “hot” a war between future nuclear-armed powers might get. And today, of course, we know that, if such a word can even be used in this context, a relatively modest nuclear conflict between, say, India and Pakistan might actually obliterate billions of us, in part by creating a — yes, brrr — “nuclear winter,” that would give the very phrase “cold” war a distinctly new meaning.

These days, despite an all too “hot” war in Ukraine in which the U.S. has, at least indirectly, faced off against the crew that replaced those Soviet cold warriors of yore, the new Cold War references are largely aimed at this country’s increasingly tense, ever more militarized relationship with China. Its focus is both the island of Taiwan and much of the rest of Asia. Worse yet, both countries seem driven to intensify that struggle.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Joe Biden made a symbolic and much-publicized stop in Vietnam (yes, Vietnam!) while returning from the September G20 summit meeting in India. There, he insisted that he didn’t “want to contain China” or halt its rise. He also demanded that it play by “the rules of the game” (and you know just whose rules and game that was). In the process, he functionally publicized his administration’s ongoing attempt to create an anti-China coalition extending from Japan and South Korea (only recently absorbed into a far deeper military relationship with this country), all the way to, yes, India itself.

And (yes, as well!) the Biden administration has upped military aid to JapanTaiwan (including $85 million previously meant for Egypt), Australia (including a promise to supply it with its own nuclear attack submarines), and beyond. In the process, it’s also been reinforcing the American military position in the Pacific from OkinawaGuam, and the Philippines to — yes again — Australia. Meanwhile, one four-star American general has even quite publicly predicted that a war between the U.S. and China is likely to break out by 2025, while urging his commanders to prepare for “the China fight”! Similarly, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has called China the “leading and most consequential threat to U.S. national security” and the Biden foreign policy team has been hard at work encircling — the Cold War phrase would have been “containing” — China, both diplomatically and militarily.

On the Chinese side, that country’s military has been similarly ramping up its air and naval activities around and ever closer to the island of Taiwan in an ominous fashion, even as it increases its military presence in places like the South China Sea (as has the U.S.). Oh, and just in case you hadn’t noticed, with a helping hand from Russia, Beijing is also putting more money and effort into expanding its already sizable nuclear arsenal.

Yes, this latest version of a Cold War is (to my mind at least) already a little too hot to handle. And yet, despite that reality, it couldn’t be more inappropriate to use the term “new Cold War” right now on a globe where a previously unimagined version of a hot war is staring us all, including most distinctly the United States and China, in the face.

As a start, keep in mind that the two great powers facing off so ominously against each other have long faced off no less ominously against the planet itself. After all, the United States remains the historically greatest greenhouse gas emitter of all time, while China is the greatest of the present moment (with the U.S. still in second place and Americans individually responsible for significantly more emissions than their Chinese counterparts). The results have been telling in both countries.

In 2023, the United States has already experienced a record 23 billion-dollar weather disasters from Hawaii to Florida with the year still months from ending. Meanwhile, China has been clobbered by staggering heat waves and stunning flooding, the heaviest rains in 1,000 years, displacing 1.2 million people in areas around its capital, Beijing. Given the past summer, this planet and all its inhabitants are no longer in anything that could pass for a cold war state.

The Freedom to Fuel?

As it happens, industrializing countries first began to, in essence, make war on our world in the late eighteenth century, but had no idea they were doing so until deep into the twentieth century. These days, however, it should be anything but a secret that humanity is all too knowingly at war — and there’s nothing “cold” about it — with and on our very own world. Sadly enough, however, in the United States, the leading politicians of one of the two major political parties seem remarkably intent not just on refusing to recognize that reality, but on supporting the release of carbon into the atmosphere in ever more major ways. Its presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump (whose last presidential campaign was heavily financed by the fossil fuel industry) and the failing, flailing Ron DeSantis, are, in fact, remarkably eager to deny the reality of our present world. Worse yet, they seem hell-bent on encouraging the further development and use of coal, natural gas, and oil on a staggering scale, while shredding what regulations exist to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, from the heart of Texas oil country, as the New York Times recently reported, DeSantis announced a plan he called “the freedom to fuel.” He promised “to remove subsidies for electric vehicles, take the U.S. out of global climate agreements — including the Paris accords — and cancel net-zero emission promises. He also vowed to increase American oil and natural gas production and ‘replace the phrase climate change with energy dominance’ in policy guidance.”

And in such blindness, Trump and DeSantis are anything but alone. In 2022, those major G20 nations that met in India recently poured a record $1.4 trillion (yes, that is not a misprint!) into subsidizing fossil fuels in various ways, more than double the figure for 2019. Meanwhile, the profits of the major fossil fuel companies have risen precipitously, thanks in part undoubtedly to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And China, despite leading the way in developing green alternative energy sources, also continues to use more coal than the rest of the planet combined, while building yet more coal power plants.

The results of such a — yes, warlike — approach to the planet have been painfully obvious this year. After all, the northern hemisphere just broiled through its hottest summer in recorded history and the southern hemisphere the hottest winter. Each summer month — June, July, and August — also broke its own previous global record for heat and 2023 is almost guaranteed to be the hottest year ever recorded.

In addition, in the last five months, the world’s ocean waters also broke temperature records, heating up if not literally to the boiling point, then at least to stunning levels. Off southern Florida, water temperatures recently passed 101 degrees Fahrenheit! That increasingly warm water helped produce ever more powerful storms with ever more rainfall. Meanwhile, sea ice levels in Antarctica fell to new lows. This summer, countries like Greece got devastating versions of both fire and flood, while an ever more parched Libya recently experienced a storm that climate change had made 50 times more likely with such staggering rainfall that two dams collapsed and the ensuing waters swept away a quarter of the coastal city of Derna.

These days, though, it hardly matters where you look. Even Australia just experienced its hottest winter ever and already potentially “catastrophic” spring fire conditions are developing there. Evidence also suggests that, whatever the extremes of the present moment, the future holds far worse in store.

In that context, think about the fact that the planet’s two greatest carbon emitters, China and the United States, now fully knowledgeable about what they’re doing, can’t seem to imagine working together in any fashion to deal with a catastrophe that may prove, in the decades to come, the slow-motion equivalent of a nuclear war.

The New Hot War

So, a new Cold War? Don’t count on it. I mean honestly, how can anyone anywhere talk about a new cold war with a straight face on a planet where nature’s increasingly hot war is the order of the day — and where far too little is being done. Meanwhile, as of this moment, the distinctly hot war in Ukraine is only worsening, as the Russian and Ukrainian militaries emit ever more carbon, which, it turns out, is what militaries do. After all, the U.S. military is the largest institutional greenhouse emitter on the planet, larger than some countries.

It tells you something painful about our world that the president waging a new Cold War with China looks like a beacon of sanity compared to the utter climate madness of the Republicans. At least, he’s taken some necessary steps to rein in fossil fuels, unlike his presidential predecessor. And yet, in a world that’s growing hotter by the month, sanity would — or at least should — suggest that the planet’s two largest carbon emitters demilitarize their relations and form an alliance to take on the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Otherwise, the rise and fall of great powers could itself become a thing of the past. And yet few are the American politicians who would support that.

On a planet burning up ahead of schedule — and where, no matter how you look at it, humanity is reaching beyond some of the boundaries set for life itself — isn’t it time to refocus in a major way on the new Hot War (and not the one in Ukraine) that has this planet in its grip? Isn’t it time for the American and Chinese leaderships to cut the war-like posturing and together face a world in desperate danger, for the sake, if nothing else, of all our children and grandchildren who don’t deserve the planet we’re heating up for them in such a devastatingly rapid fashion?

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *