Nuclear Winter: Does Anyone Care?

The article Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering discusses the possible effects of a “nuclear winter,” an event following nuclear conflict that would have a major impact on the environment and on global agriculture. Nuclear explosions are theorized to throw enormous amounts of debris and fine particles into the high atmosphere, where it is trapped for long periods of time. This layer of particles blocks sunlight, thereby lowering global temperatures and affecting crops. In addition, a nuclear winter would heat the atmosphere and cause a drastic thinning of the ozone layer, which could cause future effects on global climate in the future. In the event of even a regional conflict in northern India and Pakistan (with, as the authors propose, only 100 nuclear detonations), the resulting nuclear winter could cripple agriculture globally, and possible cause the deaths of one billion people from food shortages. Even in the case of a “local” or regional war then, the authors argue, the impact of this war can be felt in a severe way across the entire world. They recommend abolition of nuclear weapons, to preclude a nuclear winter from happening.

One question that came to my mind as I read this is whether the possibility of a nuclear winter is appropriately taken into account by political and military decision-makers in debating when and why to use nuclear weapons. I can’t say that I’ve heard much about an event like this in debates on nuclear weapons. It also seems that the people who would be most affected by hunger (the global poor) are extremely far from the decision-making process for two other nations to go to war.

Another question that I had was what precautions can be made to mitigate the effects of a nuclear winter, if one were to occur. For example, have agricultural methods and seeds been engineered in order to sustain production in this type of event? Or, are there potential ways to hasten the clearing of the atmosphere (by capturing particles early, for example)? — Jay

5 thoughts on “Nuclear Winter: Does Anyone Care?

  1. Like Jay, I hadn’t heard much about nuclear winter prior to this week’s readings. It is surprising that this threat, which caused somewhat of a panic in 1980s, is rarely discussed today. When the idea was first conceived, it was taken so seriously that it reinvigorated US-Soviet talks over disarmament; the Retro Report video implies that the fear of nuclear winter motivated Reagan’s and especially Gorbachev’s decision to sign the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated nearly 2,700 missiles.

    In the context of the Cold War, it was initially thought that conflict between two great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, would lead to global catastrophe. However, Robock and Toon’s research makes the alarming case that even a regional conflict (i.e. not one between two hegemonic powers) could have a massive impact on the global climate. The US’s goal, then, should not just be to prevent nukes from falling into the hands of our enemies, but to work towards a global nuclear zero.

    Some political scientists argue that the nuclear era is not as dangerous as it seems; rather, because nuclear states refuse to attack other nuclear states, we now live in the most peaceful era in history. Kenneth Waltz, for example, has said “Those who love peace should love nuclear weapons” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/42896338). I’ll admit that I used to find this idea appealing and believed that deterrence would be sufficient to stop a nuclear catastrophe. However, I failed to understand that nuclear conflict would have consequences for people who are not members of either warring state. As Jay rightly pointed out, it would be extremely unfair to subject up to a billion people to starvation due to a conflict that is solely between, say, the US and North Korea. With this in mind, it seems that relying on the “nuclear peace” idea is wishful thinking.

    The remaining question is how to convince policymakers to work towards nuclear zero. It would be hard enough to convince US policymakers to give up nukes, and even harder to convince other world leaders to do so. Reintroducing the concept of nuclear winter might be a good way to start the conversation.

  2. Nuclear winter definitely sounds like a nightmarish scenario, but would a milder version of Nuclear winter (to use a term I came across in one of the readings- Nuclear autumn) be all that bad?

    Nuclear autumn might be able to cool the planet and steer us away from the equally nightmarish scenario of catastrophic climate change. With our current level of emissions, humans are set on a direct course for catastrophic climate change. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions have been insufficient and humans are unlikely to take great efforts to reduce carbon emissions until after irreversible damage has been done.

    Right now, scientists are debating as to whether Nuclear autumn or Nuclear winter will be the result of nuclear conflict. If it can be proved that it will actually be a Nuclear autumn that occurs following a nuclear conflict (i.e. the effects of Nuclear War weren’t as severe as Sagan predicted), should government try to take steps to mitigate the effects of a Nuclear Autumn? And to pose a stronger ethical question, if Nuclear Autumn could help offset catastrophic climate change, should governments even attempt to avoid nuclear conflict at all costs?

  3. In regards to William’s comment about the possible benefits of a nuclear autumn–I think it’s really hard to isolate the exact effects of what would occur even in milder situations. Climate systems are incredibly complex and though computational models like Robock and Toon’s are able to give us a general sense of what *might* occur, those are far from the only effects. For example, R and T’s article mostly focuses on agricultural impacts–the results of low precipitation rates in certain areas and lower temperature levels. How would that affect hurricanes? What about the effects on wildlife populations? For example, issues with water temperature in Wisconsin have led to a dwindling trout population. How would a nuclear autumn change that? And would it change that to equivalent levels across the whole world prior to the event–in other words will the areas that are getting hotter will recede back to the ideal temperature or even lower temperatures which create opposite problems? Suffice to say, I don’t think we should rely on a mitigated nuclear autumn to address climate change.

    This is not to say that the concept of nuclear winter cannot be criticized. There is significant scientific dispute–in part focusing on the claims of the amount of material that would burn from the cities in a firestorm resulting in smoke etc. I would say though that the extent of the damage is not really the point–or at least not to me. Rather, what matters is how the effects can go beyond national boundaries of countries who might engage in nuclear war, and even conservative estimates cannot dispute that fact. That gives a very real stake and more of a moral authority to the voices of the international community when it comes to these matters (this isn’t to say that normal war doesn’t have impacts on surrounding countries, but the way the integrity of a country’s environmental system is violated by the aftereffects of a nuclear event are particularly unique).

  4. To echo some of the above: I hadn’t heard of this idea either, and that is quite scary, given that I’ve spent quite some time on the Cold War and disarmament in various courses.

    The point William raised about nuclear autumn raises some pretty tough ethical questions (“If Nuclear Autumn could help offset catastrophic climate change, should governments even attempt to avoid nuclear conflict at all costs?”). From a strictly utilitarian perspective, I would say that if we believe climate change would destroy the world anyway, and a Nuclear Autumn could mitigate that, maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to prevent a Nuclear Autumn; to be even more controversial, we could argue we have a duty to cause it. However, I see a difference between causing and allowing something to happen, and issues with allowing something terrible to happen for “the greater good” (which assumes we know there will truly be a greater good, and sounds like an excuse of progress nonetheless). More practically speaking, I think that the human tendency to focus on the present and on the self would probably prevent us from doing something like this, even if we did think it would be better for the planet in the long-run.

    I wonder, too, whether advances in other forms of technology, especially in developed countries (e.g. artificial food production) have played a role in reducing the perceived risks of this kind of phenomena to those in richer areas of the world. I’d hope everyone is still horribly afraid of a ‘Nuclear Winter’, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if in weighing their worst-case scenario, proponents of nuclear weapon proliferation suggested we could probably get through that. Even if that assertion were true, most of the world probably wouldn’t, as argued in the article.

    As for the recommendation at the end of this paper, I tend to agree that abolition is the only “true” solution. However, I wonder if it is too idealistic from a policy perspective. The article makes a good case for the need for abolition, but I struggle to see the practicality and feasibility of this ideal. The article states: “Rapid reduction of the American [and Russian] arsenals would set an example for the rest of the world..”, but I wonder if we can really trust that a leader like Kim Jong-Un would take a US nuclear reduction and say “I should reduce mine too” rather than “Now America can’t hurt us that badly back!” Perhaps there are other options, such as providing additional financial incentives for de-armament. But, if there is no real way to ensure that other people get rid of their weapons, would getting rid of ours just increase our risk? Of course, this pessimistic outlook would suggest keeping, and perhaps even increasing, our nuclear weapon arsenal, which seems to be a very bad idea in light of this article. Assuming we agree abolition is the ideal, I would be interested in hearing what you think are feasible policies and ways to encourage it. Do you think we should keep striving for abolition, or abandon the ideal altogether?

  5. On the Topic of Nuclear Winter, I think a primary reason why it’s not thoroughly considered is because, at a political level, the considerations of each singular state over only really matter up until it’s non-existence. If Pakistan and India actually “duke it out” with nuclear weapons it wont matter what happens after because their interests, and probably lives, are already gone or devastated. To use a common analogy, if there are two people standing in a pool of gas, one has three matches the other with five, the considerations of bystanders in the room is really not the primary thought of people locked in such a conflict since we’re talking about the existential threats posed by another opposing power. I believe both can agree that collateral damage would be extremely high, but the whole purpose of the weapon is to not use it, and simply maintain a credible threat. When you look at it from that perspective, talking about not wanting to use it because it may hurt neighbouring countries may work against the idea of the credible threat that maintains M.A.D. – thus compromising one’s own position.
    I disagree with the point that nuclear zero is the best course of action. That assumes, full compliance, the dismantling of the nuclear deterrence structure, and could quite possibly open the world to a threat that we have avoided since that last world war – a conventional conflict between great powers except now with the killing efficiency of 21st century technology. This is not to say that great power conflict will occur given nuclear zero, but nuclear weapons are an efficient force multiplier that balances the power asymmetry given comparative advantages different powers may have. In this respect this must be a number of nukes that is low enough to diffuse tensions ad maintain the security of such stockpiles while being large enough to maintain the balance away from conventional great power conflict.

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