07/18/2013 01:38 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

"Ban the Bomb" Resonates Anew

When the 12-year-old son of a friend saw a badge with the slogan "Ban the Bomb", he asked "what bomb?" The slogan may belong to an earlier generation but the threat of nuclear arms remains a deadly reality. This is the largely forgotten elephant in the room which the world must address before it's too late.

The union movement, at the forefront of the campaign against nuclear arms in the Cold War, is once again a vociferous advocate for nuclear disarmament under the umbrella of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is currently stuck at five minutes to midnight. Its symbolic message is clear: time to act has nearly run out.

Disarmament talks have stalled, two thousand nuclear weapons remain on high alert, and some experts say we will be lucky to survive more than a few decades without another Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Despite the best efforts of the west, nuclear programs continue in volatile and unstable countries such as Iran and North Korea.

With this in mind, is the case for a global armistice a genuine reality? Can we, in fact, ban the bomb? The evidence against appears as substantial as Kim Jong Un's gun rack. Nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons are thought to exist today, held in the arsenals of nine countries.

The historic 2010 pact between Presidents Obama and Medvedev to cut U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by 25 to 30 percent was supposed to lead to talks on deeper nuclear reductions but disarmament talks have stalled and a nuclear treaty remains very much a distant hope.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 showed that even a small nuclear weapon is destructive enough to destroy a city, and kill or injure tens of thousands of people, but what are the likely consequences of a nuclear attack in the 21st century?

Experts say that the detonation of a tiny fraction of the current armaments would bring the global economy and society to its knees, not to mention the death, injury and destruction it would cause.

Recent scientific studies indicate that the use of 100 weapons in a "limited" nuclear war say between India and Pakistan would affect the global climate for a decade, obscuring the sun and shortening crop-growing seasons.

However, history tells us that the situation has been even more fragile than today and that we must not lose hope. A massive reduction in the number of nuclear weapons is possible. After all, by the 1980s, nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons had been manufactured -- enough to obliterate civilization many times over.

The great reduction of this number is partly in thanks to the immense efforts of trade unions working in partnership with the nuclear disarmament movement that contributed to the Cold War superpowers pulling back from the abyss of nuclear confrontation.

The Cold War has ended, but the world has daydreamed while the nuclear threat has continued to grow with renewed vigor. The call must be reissued for a new global movement to bring nuclear weaponry to its knees.

It is becoming increasingly clear that any ban will not come from the top. Political leadership has failed. Instead, the working people of the world must take the message to Washington and Whitehall ourselves, as we did during the Cold War.

There is much we can do. We must campaign to remove weapons from high alert status, for a reduction in the number of weapons, and for a convention to establish a legal framework. We must act now -- coping with the humanitarian emergency arising from a nuclear weapon detonation is beyond the capacity of any state or international body. The positive news is that attitudes are changing. In March, 127 states, UN humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and representatives of civil society, met in Oslo to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The Oslo conference put the dangers of nuclear weapons front and center for two-thirds of the world's countries and for a growing public movement coordinated by ICAN.

The Oslo conference, and a meeting beforehand of more than 500 campaigners and experts, showed that the idea of Banning the Bomb resonates anew, perhaps more strongly than ever. It is a prickly issue, but it affects us all. We should grasp this nettle by supporting ICAN's efforts, and by getting our respective governments to participate in a follow-up to the Oslo conference, to be held in Mexico next year.

As well as its threat to life, the nuclear weapons game is expensive and wasteful of human potential. At a time when governments are reducing investment in programs that grow economies -- education, health and social infrastructure, huge sums of taxpayers' money are being sought to upgrade and maintain nuclear arsenals.

Western democracies hold up nuclear weaponry as the ultimate deterrent -- holding so much power, they argue, makes it impossible to be attacked. But humans are fallible. Sooner or later these weapons will be used, whether by accident or miscalculation, if not design. We are playing Russian roulette with nuclear bullets.

A growing public movement coordinated by the ICAN with the support of organizations such as UNI Global Union, is seeking a treaty banning nuclear weapons because of their humanitarian and environmental consequences. We urge you to join the cause.

After all the stakes are high -- the future of humanity itself could rest upon it.