We are all going to die. Since the end result is the same, perhaps the way it happens shouldn’t matter, but it does. Given the choice, I’d rather not burn to death.
This is probably why the spectre of nuclear war remains so frightening, despite being highly unlikely. The radiation poisoning and horrific injuries we saw in the television series Chernobyl were a reminder of a time when we lived in vivid fear of the power of the atom, whether in the form of a missile or a meltdown
So the nuclear threat as a preoccupation of our collective consciousness makes sense. But the outsize role it plays in our political discourse is hard to justify. The circumstances in which a nuclear weapon would be used by the UK are so far-fetched that nobody really describes what they are. And yet every contender for the leadership of a national party is forced to answer the simplistic question: would you push the button?
Jeremy Corbyn has been goaded since 2015 for refusing to say yes or no to that question. His pacifist stance probably helped give “the button” an even bigger platform during the election campaign. And now it is becoming a motif of the Labour leadership contest, with Rebecca Long Bailey being asked the same question on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning.
The amount of attention given to the prospect of a hypothetical nuclear war seems grossly out of proportion, especially when compared to the existential threat we are actually facing: the climate emergency. Labour’s Green New Deal policy, which Long Bailey helped write, was a central theme of her pitch for leader. Yet in the same radio interview she wasn’t asked about it once.
Outside of the left, where is the debate about the climate crisis? Where is the outrage? Where is the fear?
The Conservatives mentioned the climate crisis just 10 times in their manifesto. They have no convincing strategy for reducing carbon emissions at the speed required to avert disaster. So, outside of the left, where is the debate? Where is the outrage? Where is the fear?
This week social media was flooded with pictures of near-apocalyptic scenes of scorched koala bodies and houses engulfed in flames as images of the fires in Australia spread around the world. Meanwhile, one columnist fumed on Twitter about an environmentally friendly vegan meal served at the Golden Globes. Frankly, we ran out of time for this type of silliness long ago.
The climate emergency is a clearer and more present danger than Britain becoming embroiled in nuclear war. But the latter offers a misleadingly simple scenario: one action is required, and no thought given as to what might come next (pushing the button would be the start of a nuclear war, not the end). The climate crisis, in contrast, is unavoidably messy, requiring a radical overhaul of every system, everything we buy, everything we eat. I can imagine why some would prefer not to think about it.
Boris Johnson decided not to bother attending Channel 4’s Climate Debate during the election campaign, and was represented by an ice sculpture instead. In absenting himself, the prime minister effectively announced that, when it comes to the climate crisis, he will not push the button. As that existential threat draws nearer, he will sit back and take no action. But relax: at least he has confirmed he’s willing to save us all by starting a nuclear war.
• Rachel Connolly writes about technology, cultural trends and politics