3-1: On Nuclear Winter

When thinking of nuclear war, I usually associate the term with immediate harm to humanity, property, and a country’s infrastructure. However in his article “Nuclear Winter is a Real and Present Danger,” Alan Robock comments on the detrimental environmental effects of a nuclear bomb. He notes that this article is necessary because people have the tendency to avoid unpleasant topics and because society may no longer believe that nuclear activity poses a risk to global temperatures.

Even thought this research originally helped slow the arms race in the 1980s, the debate brought about by the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ has been fraught with pitfalls. Robock comments that the debate on the actual idea has been scarce. Attention has been focused on the specifics of the models instead of the implications of the climate change. Instead of fearing the consequences of any environmental damage, the participants of the debate argued to what extent of the damage. The article makes the point that even a small nuclear conflict could create an extreme climate change that would last for decades. The article “Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War” states that nuclear war could cause an “agricultural collapse” (37). Societies would face starvation.

I find the general avoidance of this topic troubling. These scientists’ work is not censored but ignored. The information about the environmental cost of nuclear activity will not help enemies make harmful technology or give away strategies. Additionally, Robock, Toon, and Turco write that few experiments on the effects of nuclear war have been conducted since the 80s. Although the current information could worry the public, the research demonstrates striking results that affect every country and that should influence policy decisions. — Clarissa

6 thoughts on “3-1: On Nuclear Winter

  1. I agree that it is disappointing how scientist’s work on nuclear winter has been somewhat ignored. Not only would their work bring to light the extreme long-term consequences of limited nuclear wars, but I also believe that this type of research could be useful in bringing awareness to the global warming problem. After reading these scientists’ research, it is easy to see how the effects of nuclear wars (fires which lead to soot) can cause climate change. Assuming one accepts the climate change model, it is clear how large of an effect the climate change can have. I think that this could be an interesting way to inform the public on the problem of global warming. Since the causes of climate change with nuclear winter are so obvious, it is easy to see how there could be a problem of climate change. The story of nuclear winter is very dramatic. Global warming, on the other hand, is caused by more mundane day-to-day activities. It is hard for some people to understand how these normal activities could be causing such harm. However, nuclear winter and global warming have a similar relative effect on global warming/cooling. Obviously the idea of nuclear winter would need to gain widespread acceptance first, but if it does it could be a useful tool in explaining climate change to the general public. This is a little off topic, but I thought it was an interesting point to raise

  2. Considering the scientific reasoning behind the concept of “nuclear winter” was well established and widely accepted in the 80s, I wonder what scientists, government officials, and civilians can do to spread awareness about this harmful effect of even a “minor” nuclear conflict. For example, the term and imagery invoked by “nuclear winter” seems to have been counteracted by the idea of a “nuclear autumn”; how might we go about reemphasizing the dangerous effects of a nuclear conflict on climate change? In terms of policy making, how can we mobilize enough public concern or get the attention of key policy makers to focus on this issue?

  3. It is true that the concept of nuclear winter is something ignored by the general public, politicians, and even some scientists. It seems to be a phenomenon that could drastically affect the quality of life on earth – so why is it not something that is talked about more frequently? When nuclear technology enters the mind of most people, the nature of nuclear winter is often overshadowed by the more immediate and severe impacts that the technologies may have. However, this may not be a bad thing. The scare factor behind the immediate effects of nuclear technology has caused much emphasis to be placed on the issue of preventing the development and use of nuclear weapons, as well as the regulation of other forms of nuclear technology. These are factors that could indirectly prevent a nuclear winter, even if this was not the primary motivation. Is there really anything that could be done to prevent a nuclear winter that the world’s leaders and intellectuals are not already trying to do? That’s why I do not think disarmament is the issue here, as Robock suggests. Disarmament already has other well established motivators. The most pressing issue in this case would be taking measures to decide upon what is to be done should a nuclear winter type situation actually occur. If preparations were not made, how quickly could the world reestablish its failing agricultural systems and begin feeding its citizens?

  4. The lack of visibility of these studies on the effects of nuclear winter is indeed very concerning. It seems like the subject of nuclear proliferation has been forgotten since the end of the Cold War, but Rodock’s article certainly demonstrate that the possession of nuclear arsenals by smaller nations could also endanger humanity.
    The recent nuclear tests in North Korea and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran come to mind when discussing nuclear winter. In both cases, nations that have been demonstrated hostile intentions towards others have or are close to acquiring nuclear weapons. The use of such to fulfill their agendas is a very real possibility as the conflicts escalate.
    It would be interesting to ask Mr. Robock if the possibility of a nuclear winter has been discussed when dealing with the current developments in both North Korea and Iran. Is nuclear winter considered a reality by US policy makers? How serious is it taken by the UN Security Council?

  5. I just want to further a couple of the points made in previous post. Before reading this article, I was completely oblivious to this concept of a nuclear winter, as I assume many Americans are. After reading it, I’m amazed that more is not being done to prevent this and inform the population. Basically, Robock is saying that any sort nuclear war, however small, would end the world as we know it. He says that if only 1/3 of the nuclear arsenal were used the global temperature would drop below freezing for months, killing nearly all plants, and cause worldwide famine. Also, recent research suggests that this could be even worse than originally thought. And a nuclear war like this would not only affect the countries participating but the entire world. Robock also states that more people could die of starvation in China that in the countries participating. Now, the common concern is the direct destruction that a nuclear weapon will create and the effects of radiation. While these are huge consequences of nuclear war, they do not compare to the nuclear winter that Robock believes will occur. The possibility of a nuclear winter is extremely scary, and more needs to be done to make sure that nuclear weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

  6. Before reading these articles, I was vaguely aware of the concept of a “nuclear winter.”
    However, I was under the impression that creating the conditions leading to
    such an event would require a large scale nuclear war, say between the United States
    and Russia. A Pakistan-India conflict appears far more likely and due to
    climate effects, would change the world as we know it. I think this raises
    valid ethical questions for further discussion too about the world’s most
    vulnerable people being the hardest hit from a nuclear winter as a result in a
    conflict on the other side of the world. I would also be curious as to if the
    developed world could cope with food shortages and “ice age” temperatures.

    Maybe the most striking statement to me in the entire article was “Globally, nine nations have
    nuclear weapons. By using their arsenals, all of the countries other than North Korea and Iran could jeopardize civilization.” This reinforces the importance of nonproliferation to both eliminate this capability and to reduce
    the likeliness that it would occur. We also may need to reevaluate our
    priorities. While Iranian nuclear weapons would be bad, allowing North Korea to
    develop a nuclear arsenal capable of bringing about a nuclear winter may be an
    even more pressing and potentially destructive security threat; maybe another “red
    line” to consider?

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