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Current nuclear threats on par with Cuban missile crisis, former US Energy secretary says

  • "I would say that the nuclear threats today are as bad (as) or worse than they had been since the Cuban missile crisis. North Korea's part of that, U.S.-Russia relations, India-Pakistan – so that's really an issue," Ernest J. Moniz tells CNBC.
  • Geopolitical tensions are leaving their mark on the world, with global financial markets showing signs of nervousness after North Korea fired a missile over Japan.
  • When it comes to fighting climate change in the U.S., even though the country is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, Moniz still has hope for a more low carbon economy.

Ernest J. Moniz, Energy secretary under the Obama administration, believes the world has become a more dangerous place in light of rising geopolitical tensions, such as those between North Korea and the West.

"I would say that the nuclear threats today are as bad (as) or worse than they had been since the Cuban missile crisis. North Korea's part of that, U.S.-Russia relations, India-Pakistan — so that's really an issue," Moniz told CNBC on Thursday at the Ambrosetti Forum in Italy.

"I won't speak entirely causally, but let's say the world has become a more dangerous place," he added.

The Cuban missile crisis, which took place in October 1962, was when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came "closest to nuclear conflict," according to the U.S. State Department's website.

It was a critical point in history, where leaders from both sides engaged in a tense military and political standoff over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Fast forward to the present, and geopolitical tensions continue to leave their mark on the world, with global financial markets showing signs of nervousness this week.

On Tuesday, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that a ballistic missile fired by North Korea had passed over Japan — a provocation that was met with criticism from the United Nations and leaders worldwide.

Following the news, President Donald Trump released a statement saying that "all options are on the table".

Ernest Moniz
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Ernest Moniz

Moniz told CNBC he had become troubled by how the discussion surrounding nuclear weapons had intensified as of late.

"What disturbs me is seeing nuclear weapons elevated in national security strategy, as opposed to being given less of a prominent role."

Stance on climate change

Broadening out the discussion on the current U.S. administration's policies, the former Energy secretary took a look at the administration's present stance on climate change.

On June 1, less than two years after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreementby countries around the world – Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the treaty, commenting on how staying in the pact could have an impact on the U.S. economy.

Moniz said the withdrawal means there won't be a continuation of American leadership in this area. However, he remains positive.

Moniz said businesses and leading figures on local and regional levels still believe the issue of climate change should be addressed, and some companies looking for a more environmentally friendly future.

"I have to say (however) that I have some hope, because that announcement triggered an enormous outpouring of support in the U.S. from mayors, governors, business leaders, of course internationally, others being prepared to step forward."

Moniz added that such support was "extraordinarily encouraging," and he added that he didn't believe the U.S. was going backward when it came to tackling climate change, but rather going toward a low-carbon economy.

Moniz, however, said that if the U.S. federal government refused to lead on climate issues, then this could act as an impediment on the country.

"I feel that, in this case we will get to the same place (on climate issues). The road getting there will be a little bit rockier because of (the) U.S. position."