Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change, and the Importance of the State

Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change, and the Importance of the State

The connections between climate science and the American military-industrial complex suggest that global governance of the climate is likely to continue to be driven by state interests. 


Climate change, like nuclear weapons, is routinely described as a “global” threat that has transformed our world into a “global village” in which no state is secure unless a cosmopolitan and borderless vision of security is adopted. Such perspectives argue that there is a need for “global answers” to “global challenges,” which calls for a focus on what humanity “should” do to mitigate and solve climate change as a security issue. The French philosopher Bruno Latour even went so far as to argue that the challenge of climate change shows the “complete unrealism” of the sovereign state with fixed territorial borders. 

Yet, this progressive, cosmopolitan vision of the global village uniting in the face of a common challenge underestimates the role of the state in the history of climate science. Our modern scientific knowledge of climate change grew in part from the arms race of the Cold War and nuclear weapons testing. Recognizing the part played by the American national security state in early climate science, therefore, challenges the progressive desire to view security through a borderless global lens and shows the centrality of the state in any response to climate change. 


The modern awareness and knowledge of climate change is a historic product of the Cold War in which climate science was born, in part, from the need to measure, plan, rationalize, and assess the explosive capabilities of nuclear weapons. Although the scientific study of the Earth’s climatic temperature can be traced to the nineteenth century, it is developments in the twentieth century which has most directly shaped our modern understanding of climate change.

Throughout the Cold War era, scientific knowledge and technology developed hand in hand with the military and it was the arms race of the 1950s and open-air testing of atom bombs that raised public awareness of nuclear fallout and the climate itself for the first time. In the early days of the Cold War, meteorologists had very little information on how climatic processes worked and much less idea of how atomic testing might influence it. Contemporary newspapers in America reflected concerns that the very power of nuclear weapons raised questions of the possible effects on the weather, to concerns of atomic dust and fallout, with some voices even calling to explore the possibility of weaponizing the weather. The infamous Cold War scare of nuclear winter originated from model-based investigations into the atmospheric effects of nuclear war. The fear of nuclear winter, therefore, contributed to the development of a public consciousness about the wider effects of nuclear weapons and humanity’s impact on the environment. As a global atmospheric issue, nuclear weapons testing and the fear of nuclear fallout was the catalyst for growth in the research of ozone depletion and in popularizing the link between nuclear weapons and the atmosphere. The invention of nuclear weapons created for the first time a broad public awareness of humanity's ability to impact the atmosphere and shape the climate. 

The U.S. program of nuclear testing inspired a broad range of research from government-funded programs led by organizations such as the Research and Development Board of the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Office of Naval Research. The military patronage of scientific research was driven by strategic interests, with geophysicists called upon in the late 1940s as a way to help detect Soviet atomic tests. What is significant about nuclear weapons testing is that it provides both a means and an incentive for studying the workings of the climate. The very testing of nuclear weapons essentially created a ready-made experiment for early climate science by presenting a controlled discharge of material into the upper atmosphere at a specified time and place. The scientific monitoring of nuclear fallout relied upon accurate knowledge and measurement of the carbon cycle. It was the radiocarbon (C-14) generated by atomic explosions that provided concrete data for the first time on atmospheric circulation and the carbon cycle. Early pioneers of climate science, such as Hans Suess and Roger Revelle, were then sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Office of Naval Research to investigate the carbon cycle across the globe. Revelle had been involved in monitoring CO2 after nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, while together they developed, in 1957, models to calculate and explain the uptake of CO2 in the ocean. These measurements form the baseline of modern climate change awareness. 

Along with the fallout of nuclear weapons, climate science was also driven by U.S. strategic interests in the Arctic. The U.S. military began to focus on the Arctic after having seen the cold weather advantage of Soviet forces over the Wehrmacht in World War II. Throughout the Cold War, the Arctic acted both as a buffer zone and a front line of espionage and scientific monitoring of the Soviet Union. Arctic bases, such as Thule Air Base in Greenland, would serve as a refueling station, a ballistic early warning system location, and a satellite control facility. But Thule Air Base was also the starting point of glaciological and geological exploration, which hosted meteorological and ionospheric research facilities. 

It was the pressure of U.S. strategic interests and funding of scientific research that formed a U.S. consensual hegemony over Danish territory. The U.S. military funded research into snow, ice, and permafrost in order to understand how to operate and maintain installations in the harsh environment of Greenland. The need for intelligence about the terrain provided a further impetus for climate research. Camp Century, a military scientific research base 150 miles east of Thule Air Base, acted as a focal point for such research. It was at Camp Century that scientists were able to extract and study the first deep ice core in 1966 to examine polar warming. Although warming of the Arctic was not initially thought of as a significant public concern, the U.S. military was concerned with changes in the Arctic ice cover because of its potential impact on military installations, as well as the further impact on ice coverage as a strategic barrier to the Soviet Union. 

The connection between the Cold War and environmental science can also be traced to early attempts at geoengineering. The United States undertook conceptual research into weather modification and even made direct attempts to impact the environment with the use of cloud seeding and chemical weapons such as Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Interest in weather modification could also be found in the Soviet Union, with discussions on how to warm the planet with mirrors and even an ambitious plan to create a Saturn-like ring of particles around the planet, which could then be used to melt permafrost and encourage the flourishing of nature across Siberia. The realism of these plans may be questionable, but they show how the very power of nuclear weapons encouraged a techno-utopian dialogue of “mastery” over the environment, which was fuelled by the priorities of national security. 

The blurred connections between climate science and the national security state also continue today with Earth observation technologies. Satellite monitoring technology is used to study a range of environmental factors, such as examining ice coverage and CO2 levels and measuring agriculture and urbanization, which can then be used to address “global challenges.” The “planetary perspective” such observation technologies provide, however, is also shaped by the technopolitics of data control, which can be restricted by national security concerns, and the monitoring of geosurveillance can further influence border monitoring and enforcement. 

Recognizing the link between climate change awareness and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War is not to delegitimize climate science. Instead, it is to highlight the importance of the state in the production of knowledge and in the development of technology. Progressive commentators make the mistake of reasoning that because climate change is global in nature, there will be a united global response. However, the very scientific knowledge of climate change that is used to justify cosmopolitan ideals of a borderless world would not be possible without the American military-industrial complex. With the latest round of UN talks on climate change at COP28 recently concluded, there will be expectations and calls for a greater response to the threat of climate change. Climate action so far, however, as can be seen with negotiations in Paris 2016 and Glasgow 2021, is now primarily driven by national state interests. The connections between climate science and the American military-industrial complex suggest that global governance of the climate is likely to continue to be driven by state interests. 

Dr. Kevin Blachford is a Lecturer of Defence Studies for King's College London at the UK's Joint Services Command and Staff College.

Image: Manuela Durson /