Debatt: What Happened to Sweden’s Leadership on Climate and Nuclear Disarmament?

Läs vår och Sverker Sörlins debattartikel i den amerikanska tidsskriften Newsweek om de två existentiella hoten från klimatförändringar och kärnvapenkrig.

The U.N. recently held two meetings addressing existential threats to much of life on Earth—COP28 in Dubai, and a summit on banning nuclear weapons in New York. Our country, Sweden, has traditionally been an international leader on both climate and nuclear disarmament. But under the current right-wing government, we are increasingly a hindrance to global progress on both issues.

The twin threats of climate change and nuclear war are unmistakably intensifying. On Nov. 17, global average temperature exceeded two degrees above pre-industrial levels for the first time. CO2 emissions in 2022 reached an all-time high, and 2023 is projected to be the warmest year on record.

The danger of nuclear war is also growing. The nine nuclear-armed countries are increasing their nukesbudgets and expanding their arsenals, contravening their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite recent statements, the understanding that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought seems to have been forgotten. In 2023, Russia, North Korea, and an Israeli minister have all threatened to actually use nukes.

Now more than ever, the world needs positive examples to confront the existential threats of climate change and nuclear war. But instead of stepping up to the plate, the current Swedish government is giving up Sweden’s long-standing leadership on decarbonization and disarmament and backtracking on our previous commitments.

On climate, this government has cut taxes on fossil fuels and rolled back a successful biofuel program. It has also scrapped an existing tax cut on electric vehicles and raised taxes on sustainable practices like repairing bikes. By the Swedish government’s own projections, these measures will drastically increase emissions and make Sweden miss its own 2030 climate goals.

Similarly, with its expected accession to NATO, Sweden has all but abandoned its long-held commitment to nuclear disarmament. Its NATO bid lacks crucial guarantees against placing nukes in Sweden. Sweden has also withdrawn from the ”humanitarian pledge” within the NPT, as the government no longer endorses the principle that ”nuclear weapons should never under any circumstances be used.” It also refused to even send an observer to the widely attended U.N. meeting on banning nukes.

In dark times, many—including Sweden’s current leaders—turn to myths and wishful thinking instead of facing the truth. One myth is that today’s nukes are small and precise. Another is that the effects of a nuclear war can be mitigated. To the contrary, a 2022 report showed that dropping a tactical nuke on the Swedish Parliament would kill 90,000 while injuring 250,000.

Furthermore, climate models show that even a ”small local” nuclear war between India and Pakistan would destroy global food supplies and kill some 2 billion people worldwide, while a U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange would kill 5 to 6 billion people and cause a catastrophic ”nuclear winter.”

Similar wishful thinking exists on climate. Our government’s fairy tale says that Swedes can keep flying, driving, and consuming at our current levels, and that incremental policies will solve climate change. But we know that affluent nations like Sweden—and particularly affluent groups within them—contribute disproportionately to global emissions. To reach the 1.5-degree target, the richest 1 million Swedes would need to reduce their emissions by a whopping 82 percent. This reduction is impossible without major reforms and lifestyle changes that our government pretends are unnecessary.

Sweden’s procrastination and backsliding on two of the biggest threats of our time are both morally offensive and depressingly ineffective. Despite its many advantages, like abundant hydropower and a population that cares deeply about climate change and nuclear disarmament, Sweden seems unable to lead. Now, our government is aligning itself with hypocrites, betraying Swedes, the 2017 Swedish Climate Act, and most importantly, the world’s climate and disarmament goals. But neither nuclear winter nor devastating global warming is a predestined outcome. We are not powerless. The world’s wealthiest countries, including Sweden and the United States, must recognize that these existential threats affect every country in the world. We have the resources, technology, and institutions to solve both threats. We just need our leaders to put real actions behind their lofty words.

In these challenging times, the world needs success stories, not fairytales. Not long ago, Sweden aspired to become ”the world’s first fossil-free welfare state” and stood for nuclear disarmament. For our own good, and for the international community who once looked to us as a role model, Sweden needs to reverse its irresponsible climate and nuclear policies and return to our long-standing commitments. Our country is small, but we can—and must—once again provide a positive example to the world.

And for the rest of the world, Sweden’s about-face should provide a cautionary tale—wishful thinking will not protect us from the existential threats of climate change and nuclear war; only principled leadership and bold actions will.

Sverker Sörlin is professor of environmental history at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. A government advisor on environmental policy since the 1990s, he also served on the Swedish Climate Policy Council from its inception through June 2022. His book, The Human Environment: Stockholm and the Rise of Global Environmental Governance (with Eric Paglia), is forthcoming in 2024 with Cambridge University Press.

Dr. Vendela Englund Burnett is the chair of the Swedish section of the Nobel Peace Prizes winning organizations International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She is a specialist of family medicine and is the former director of primary health care of the County of Värmland.