Justin McBrien is a Ph.D. candidate in modern American environmental and political history at the University of Virginia. His dissertation, “Making the World Safe For Disaster: Nuclear Weapons Testing and the Politics of Climate Change,” examines how a global controversy in the 1950s concerning the potentially disastrous effects of nuclear weapons on weather and climate first articulated the growing intuition that human beings were catastrophically altering the global climate system. Justin is the recipient of 2018 University of Virginia Dr. Frank Finger Graduate Fellowship for Teaching. He has written several articles on the history of climate change, including a recent piece in The Washington Post. Justin received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his M.A. in history from U.Va.
Making the World Safe For Disaster: Nuclear Weapons Testing and the Politics of Climate Change, 1945-1980
The twentieth century witnessed the convergence of geological and historical time. We now appear to have crossed into another geological epoch - the Anthropocene, or “Age of Humanity.” Its advent was roughly 1950, thanks predominantly to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. “Making the World Safe for Disaster: Nuclear Weapons Testing and the Politics of Climate Change, 1945-1974,” shows how this idea of humanity as a geological agent emerged from a global controversy in the early Cold War era concerning the potentially disastrous effects of nuclear weapons on weather and climate. n the 1950s, a large portion of the public feared nuclear testing was responsible for catastrophic weather events of the time, what they referred to as “atom weather.” These fears first articulated the growing intuition that human beings were catastrophically altering the global climate system. This dissertation trace how groups such as Southwestern farmers, Indigenous Alaskans, Japanese scientists, and Mid-western suburbanites all challenged a government monopoly on nuclear risk knowledge, producing the rhetoric and strategies of the rising environmental movement of the 1960s. The story of atom weather casts new light on the historical relationship between environmental politics, Cold War political culture, scientific uncertainty, and the social and ecological impacts of the nuclear arms race. The dialectic of the weather, as the great signifier of humanity’s vulnerability to nature, and the bomb, as that of technological power at its greatest scale, merged into the popular belief that humanity had become a planetary agent with the power to save or destroy the earth. Atom weather explained people’s local environmental misfortunes in a global context of the frightening uncertainty of the Cold War world, culturally mapping the material transformations in the environment caused by the transition to a military-industrial economy run by unelected experts who promised they would make the world safe for disaster - as long as citizens did not ask how.