Yesterday, August 6, was the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. This subject, always in the public consciousness at this time of the year, is more prominent now as a result of the Oppenheimer film having come out this summer (which I reviewed here). As a historian, and a person who's spent a lot of time thinking about existential human crises like global warming, I frankly dread the Hiroshima anniversary. I guess what I don't like about it--aside from the ugly things it makes us think about, which are obvious--is observing the certainty of people's opinions about the moral implications of the atomic bombing. Should the United States have dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II? is one of the most popular and oft-debated questions involving history. I seem to be in the distinct minority because my answer, when it comes down to it, is really, "I have no idea."
To some degree, the question is pointless--which may be why it's such a popular thing to debate. Whatever your answer is, there is no consequence either to suffer or enjoy. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945, and tens of thousands of people killed; nothing can change that. The many arguments in favor of using the bomb, which often involve projected casualty figures of an expected U.S. invasion of Japan, are certainly compelling. So are the arguments that the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances is immoral and monstrous. The question, should we have done it, can't really be resolved, yet people seem compelled by something very deep to try to debate it. I generally try to avoid the debate. But that doesn't mean the issues involved with Hiroshima aren't worth thinking about. Clearly they are.
What I think often gets missed about the atom bomb debate is that it's usually compartmentalized within the context of military conflict. The creation of nuclear weapons in 1945 was a major event in the moral history of humanity because it quite suddenly posed an existential problem for the world, and whether it would end the human race depended directly on human decisions and behavior. The problem of global warming, however, is different from the specter of nuclear destruction only in form, not in substance. There's a very real possibility that humankind can be wiped out from the effects of burning fossil fuels. It's unfolding now, with heat waves and other climate disasters rippling across the globe. This also depends directly on human decisions and behavior. We have to stop burning fossil fuels if we want to survive--period, end, stop, no debate. Yet most of us don't think of global warming as the same sort of existential threat that nuclear weapons obviously pose.