3-2: Nuclear Winter and Nuclear Disarmament

One of the most interesting components of the literature on nuclear winter is the discussion of the role that the prediction of nuclear winter played on disarmament. The negative impacts of nuclear winter seem significant enough that they remove the benefit from defensively launching a nuclear strike. If Russia were to bomb the US, the harm that the US would incur upon itself by bombing Russia back is significant due to nuclear winter, and so there becomes an incentive not to keep weapons as they incur a harm domestically even if they are being launched overseas.

However, the alternative approach is that of the Reagan administration according to Badash, who says that the Reagan administration employed the nuclear winter concept as justification for a build-up (17). Perhaps the argument here is that having a significant weapon stockpile is the only way to prevent other countries from employing their weapons. While there may be some truth to this mutually assured destruction strategy, it seems to guarantee that a nuclear war would lead to serious environmental impacts.

So which is the right way to handle the problem? As I see it, if disarmament is completed, even if another country builds bombs and launches an attack, they may be able to have stockpiled enough to create significantly devastating environmental effects (though Robock and Toon suggest that only 100 bombs would be necessary). The problem here is that we may not be able to control countries like India and Pakistan, and they have enough warheads to cause a catastrophic nuclear winter. As the nuclear winter concept demonstrates, a local war between India and Pakistan can have devastating consequences; if the US cannot get these countries to participate in full disarmament, what is the correct strategy: do we keep stockpiled weapons to threaten both India and Pakistan or do we disarm and hope that it sets an example for the future? Is there any merit to keeping stockpiled weapons as an added threat, or does our knowledge of nuclear winter weaken the perceived likelihood of the US deploying its weapons? — Dan

7 thoughts on “3-2: Nuclear Winter and Nuclear Disarmament

  1. What strikes me as
    being the most dangerous is when small states that do not have significant
    conventional military power gain access to nuclear weapons. The traditional super powers like Russia and
    the United states that have had these weapons also posses great military
    strength outside of nuclear weapons.
    These states are used to wielding a large amount of power and have
    proven to be responsible enough to avoid nuclear war. Nuclear weapons become especially dangerous
    when the possessors of these weapons have no other option to defend
    themselves. Pakistan, who may be facing
    war with India, is likely to be overwhelmed in traditional warfare with
    India. Can we really expect Pakistan to
    graciously accept defeat rather than utilizing the only weapon they have that
    could give them a fighting chance? This
    perceived need for nuclear weapons to
    ensure military security combined with the common misconception that the
    theory of nuclear winter is unfounded is exceedingly dangerous.

  2. I believe that our nations’ choices regarding disarmament should not be subjected to a trade-off between security and vulnerability. Maintaining a large number of weapons for purposes of security would indeed be necessary if a limited number of the world’s nations would decide to adopt a nuclear disarmament. However, if we aimed for an international treaty which would be signed by all nations, then this trade-off would disappear. Nuclear disarmament would cease to pose a risk of vulnerability, since the decision to eliminate all nuclear weapons would be unanimous. Nonetheless, the question now becomes: how would we strengthen worldwide political will, which is crucial for such a treaty to be signed? After all, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has not been completely successful in putting an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, it is hard to convince states which use nuclear reactors not to produce nuclear weapons. It seems that there would always be non-signatory states. Yet, maybe if we were to turn our attention to the dangers that latent nuclear weapons pose to humanity, instead of concerning ourselves with unlikely events (such as a nation launching a strike powerful enough to eliminate all the nuclear weapons of another nations, thereby leading to a nuclear winter, and hence to the destruction of our species), the plausibility of the successful signing of an international treaty on nuclear disarmament would be significantly increased. For instance, William Perry, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering between 1977 and 1981, stated that “the most realistic danger posed by nuclear weapons is the risk of nuclear war by accident or by miscalculation” (Perry, “Measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war”, 1983), such as the 1961 accident in the Carolinas, when a 24-MT bomb fell out of the airplane that was carrying it. I believe that focusing more on the devastating dangers of accidents resulting from mishandling nuclear weapons, instead of on the presupposed need of stockpiling nuclear weapons for security purposes, might increase the plausibility of a successful international treaty on nuclear disarmament.

  3. While gradual disarmament by leading global military powers such as the US and Russia is certainly a welcome course of action in the short run, it is by all means too dangerous to worldwide peace for these two countries to disarm completely or even just in large quantities before any type of international treaty banning or at least limiting nuclear weapons more than is currently done is ratified by all countries. This can only be done by stressing the scenario of a nuclear winter and effectively explaining the issue to leading policy-makers and citizens worldwide alike. Informing the general public on this matter and making this a relevant issue is crucial if we hope to ever see an agreement. With no huge popular and political pressure, a measure of this sort is unlikely to become reality anytime soon. Before any such treaty is effective, unilateral disarming is simply not feasible at the moment. Recent history teaches us that the possibility of a similar retaliation is an extremely effective deterrent for nuclear warfare. As a matter of fact, the only two large scale nuclear attacks, those on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were executed at a time when no one could threaten possessed sufficiently advanced nuclear weapons to counter the US. This is why the US has the obligation make its presence be felt and act as a mediator in situations which require it such as the aforementioned one in the Indian subcontinent or that in the Middle East between Israel and Iran

  4. The scientific evidence that Robock and Toone present of the massive worldwide effects of a nuclear winter — caused even by small-scale regional nuclear wars — affects the disarmament question in several interesting ways. On one hand, it leads to the argument that nuclear weapons are too dangerous for mankind, and in order to save the planet the only solution is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. This is the position taken by Robock and Toone. However as Babash pointed out, the possibility of a nuclear winter can contribute to the disarmament question in the opposite way. Reagan for example argued that keeping nuclear weapons was a way to deter other nations from using theirs, because no nation would have it in their interest to conduct a suicidal nuclear war in which the entire planet suffers disastrous consequences. Therefore the nuclear winter evidence contributes as well to the idea, argued by political theorists such as Kenneth Waltz, that the best way to prevent war is if all nations have the bomb. In this case, no nation will use its weapons against another because of the same cost-benefit analysis that Reagan pointed to. It seems to me as if the problem with this deterrent based argument of the nuclear war evidence is two-fold: first of all, the knowledge of the consequences of a nuclear winter are not well known enough, and it is very possible that a nation might engage in a regional nuclear war expecting some retaliation of course, but without expecting huge climactic consequences. Second of all, if every nation were to have nuclear weapons, it would be harder to prevent terrorists groups who have an irrational cost-benefit analysis and may unknowingly decide that they want the effects of a suicidal nuclear winter. (The assumption that terrorist groups have irrational cost-benefit analysis might not be true when it comes to nuclear weapons: The world’s most powerful terrorists groups, despite the fact that they may use individuals as suicide bombers, are groups/businesses that thrive on prestige, funding, and the obtaining of certain political/social goals and not on their own self-destruction).

  5. I think the issue you raise of our lack ability to “control” India and Pakistan is a very complicated and charged issue. Note that I am in no way accusing you of coming up with the idea that we can control other nations, as I believe that this is a common thread amongst conversations around nuclear winter, that there are some countries whose use of nuclear weapons we can control, and some we can’t. I believe that this idea is flawed and quite dangerous. The question of who is the “we” that is controlling other nations is an important one, and I believe that this typically refers to the diplomatic entity of the United States. If this is the case, then “we” have no control over any of the other countries that currently have nuclear capabilities, nor do we have any right to control these nations. In fact, we would be in a difficult position to make judgements on these nations for doing so, as we are the only nation up until this point who has used a nuclear weapon in combat. Now, I am not claiming that the United States is evil or that other countries would be justified in the use of nuclear weapons, but I feel that our approach needs to be very clearly a global one, and not a nationalist one. The United States is one of the two largest holder of nuclear weapons in the world, and if we wish to encourage other nations to decrease their number of weapons and avoid their use, we need to keep very aware of the fact that we arguably the biggest threat to creating nuclear winter.

  6. I agree with Patrick that attempts to limit Indian and Pakistani nuclear actions should be done with a friendly, global approach than a nationalistic one. I think one means of doing this is to really re-establish support for the idea of nuclear winter. During the Cold War, nuclear winter complimented the idea of mutual destruction by presenting a case where one of the superpowers managed to severely damage the other. Now that there is only one superpower, it is more difficult to get others to accept nuclear winter.

    However, I believe that there are multiple ways to persuade nations to the idea again. First, I would like to know whether it would be possible to broker a deal that would permit a minor nuclear experiment over the Pacific Ocean to help confirm the computational model results for nuclear winter. While this is difficult and may prove to be ineffective, such an experiment could lead to large support.

    Second, I believe the consequences of nuclear winter should emphasize not only the environmental impact, but the economic and electrical impact of a nuclear attack. The resulting EMP blast could potential knock out electric grids in neighboring areas, i.e. an attack from Pakistan on India could knock out Pakistan’s electric grid. The resulting economic ramifications and disorder is sufficient reason to justify not having a nuclear attack. It would be interesting to see what the speaker has to say about this point.

    Third, the US and world governments need to once again use nuclear winter to justify disarmament treaties. If the US takes the first step to re-embrace this theory, other nations should follow suit and disarmament talks should go more positively.

    In short, the US should continue disarmament, approach nuclear situations with global intentions, and take steps to emphasize nuclear winter.

  7. While, the prospect of nuclear winter has led Toon and Robock to call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, Reagan believed that the prospect of nuclear winter provided justification for stockpiling nuclear
    weapons; by deterring nuclear war, Reagan believed he could avoid nuclear winter. The tensions between these responses to the threat of nuclear winter, pose difficult challenges for nuclear strategists.

    There are several points that should be raised as we begin to consider the implications of nuclear winter research. U.S. strategists must be cognizant of the fact that some countries believe nuclear war is “survivable” and that total destruction is not necessarily an assured outcome. This suggests that nuclear states would have to accept that nuclear war would lead to nuclear “winter” and not nuclear “autumn” to be completely deterred.

    Additionally, for nuclear winter to act as a deterrent, nuclear powers must accept that nuclear weapons cannot be used in a measured way. It seems likely that many nuclear powers have war plans that employ smaller more strategic nuclear weapons and that pursue more limited aims. As long as states believe that a “measured” nuclear war is possible, that can it be effectively used to achieve political ends, and that this can be done without triggering an all out nuclear war and a subsequent nuclear winter, it will be difficult to pursue the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

    While, researchers like Toon, Robock, and Turco argue that we must accept the fact of “nuclear winter” and pursue a total reduction of nuclear stockpiles and in the short term look to have a number in the hundreds, they do not adequately consider the implications of this policy. If the U.S. were to reduce its arsenal to levels of its peers, it may also reduce deterrence. As tegreenbaum notes, the prospects of US and Russia reducing levels to zero without being able to ensure that this occurs globally is extraordinarily dangerous.This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to stop nuclear proliferation and to encourage better protection and safeguards for the existing nuclear arsenal today. It does however, help to explain why Reagan pursued a policy of strategic build up to avoid nuclear war and nuclear winter.

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