We have no shortage of serious global issues to worry about, but nearly all of them are made more threatening by the ominous, double-edged backdrop against which they play themselves out: nuclear weapons and climate change.
India and Pakistan are not the first two countries to maintain a long-standing territorial dispute. Kim Jong Un isn’t the first megalomaniacal dictator to bluster himself onto the world stage. But the irreversible fact of nuclear weapons elevates problems such as these into crises of the first order.
Nor is Great Abaco the first Caribbean island to be devastated by a hurricane. But it does represent another significant piece of evidence that as the world warms, the weather will become more extreme. We can expect stronger hurricanes, longer droughts in some areas, too much rainfall in others and a significant disruption of the weather with consequences that will be difficult to control.
These two menacing factors — nuclear weapons and climate change — came together in a peculiar way last month when Axios reported that President Donald Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security officials and national security officers that we explore the possibility of using nuclear bombs to disrupt hurricanes before they hit land. “Why can’t we do that?” Trump reportedly asked.
It’s an intriguing idea, and in fairness to Trump, he’s not the first to suggest it. The Washington Post reports that just weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mayor of Miami Beach asked President Harry Truman to explore the possibility of using a nuclear bomb to disrupt hurricanes that threaten beachfront property.
Scientists at the time quickly dismissed the idea, noting that dropping a bomb on a hurricane could have unpredictable consequences, including making the storm worse.
So the idea is as farfetched as sending astronauts to destroy comets that are hurtling toward the earth, but it’s so attractive that while it may go away for a while, it never quite dies. As recently as 2004, the Post reports, a member of the Hernando County, Florida, commission suggested that NASA investigate using bombs to disrupt impending hurricanes. The consequences are no more predictable than they were in 1945.
But even if it worked, there’s the radiation, which would probably be the first issue that would occur to any thoughtful person pondering this really bad idea.
At some level, Trump realizes this, as well. The day after the Axios story came out, Trump, probably understanding how wacky it would sound to most people, denied it: “I never said this. Just more FAKE NEWS!”
But let’s face it: Trump’s denial is probably not dependable. As bizarre as the proposal is, it’s consistent with other drastic measures that Trump has embraced — a trade war with China, for example, or a beautiful wall or purchasing Greenland — without the benefit of past experience or the advice of experts.
But the most disquieting element of the Axios story is the reported response of the staffer who briefed Trump on the hurricane. After Trump casually suggesting nuking it, the staffer said: “Sir, we’ll look into that.”
The response implies an inclination to mollify the president rather than to confront him with the truth, which is that nuking a hurricane is a ridiculous, long-discredited idea.
But Trump doesn’t have much patience for advice or guidance from others, and he seems to be increasingly willing to use government agencies to support his views.
When Trump tweeted that Alabama was in grave danger from hurricane Dorian, National Weather Service forecasters in Birmingham quickly reassured Alabamans that they were under no threat. Last Friday NWS Birmingham received a rebuke from an unidentified NOAA spokesman defending the president’s original tweet, even though it was clearly ill-advised and incorrect.
This should worry us: climate change and nuclear weapons in the hands of a man given to erroneous ideas and impulsive assertions and actions, rather than restraint. And perhaps worst of all, he has surrounded himself with government officials and advisers who are afraid or unwilling to confront him with facts.
As they say, what could possibly go wrong?
John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.