Environmentalists: Wake up! There is a greater and more urgent threat to the climate than even global warming: the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Uhh, no.

As someone who spent a lot of time working on issues related to the threat posed by nuclear weapons — I was actually a Congressional science fellow two decades ago for a senior member of the House Armed Services committee — I think everyone should be very worried about nuclear weapons.

I even think that the scenario Time’s Eben Harrell lays out is plausible:


… climate scientists have used advanced climate modeling to show that even a small exchange of nuclear weapons—between 50-100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, which India and Pakistan already have their in arsenal—would produce enough soot and smoke to block out sunlight, cool the planet, and produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history.

Scary? It gets worse. New research by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) suggests that the above scenario of a “limited” nuclear war would also burn a hole through the ozone layer, allowing extreme levels of ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, which would greatly damage agriculture and most likely lead to a global nuclear famine.

It seems it does not take a cold war posture of MAD—mutually assured destruction—to threaten civilization as we know it.

Presenting the research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington D.C. last week, NCAR scientist Michael Mills explained that the heat and soot in the stratosphere following limited nuclear war would lead to “low-ozone” columns over cities, which would increase cancer rates and eye damage dramatically. But the ozone loss would be so great that it would also have serious repercussions for plant life, including  “plant height reduction, decreased shoot mass, and reduction in foliage area” and long-term genetic instability. Another risk is depletion of phytoplankton that feed sea life.

“It would be very difficult for us to grow the type of crops we grow today,” Mills said, according to Global Security Newswire. “In addition to ecological damage, there would be a global nuclear famine.”


So if, say, India and Pakistan were suicidal enough to each drop 25 to 50 nuclear bombs on each other, directly killing many tens of millions of people, sickening hundreds of millions of people, and rendering vast tract of land in both countries uninhabitable for a very long time, then models say it would lead to global climatic problems that would seriously harm agriculture.

Let’s temporarily set aside the fact that human-caused climate change appears to be directly impacting agriculture around the globe already (see CP’s series on food insecurity) — and it’s going to get infinitely worse if we do nothing about it.

If the Indians and Pakistanis were so irrationally self-destructive — which I don’t believe for a minute (we and the Russians managed to avoid it for over half a century) — then precisely what is the world going to do to persuade them not to pursue this course?

Harrell writes:

Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear war has diminished. So, in turn, has concern among the world’s population and political leaders about the presence of nuclear weapons.

But there are still 20,000 nuclear weapons on the planet as I type this. And as I have argued in the past, simple probability theory tells us that if these nuclear weapons exist indefinitely, they will definitely be used. While it may be difficult to imagine an intentional nuclear war between Russia and the U.S, an accidental exchange remains a threat. And as the New York Times editorial page warned on Feb. 20, Pakistan and India are locked in a dangerous—but often overlooked—nuclear arms race.

The presence of nuclear weapons—and the potential proliferation of atom bombs to new countries—is a grave environmental threat. Greens need to wake up to this reality, and recognize they should do more to protect the climate than fret over carbon emissions. It’s time for environmentalists to renew an old slogan: Ban the Bomb. Now.

Ahh, the scenario has morphed.  Now it’s a matter of probability that somewhere an accident will occur.  Perhaps — but then the U.S. and Russia are the ones with the overwhelming majority of the 20,000 and that is where the accident is far more likely to occur under this purely probabilistic analysis.  And it still remains exceedingly unlikely that such an accident would lead to 50 to 100 nuclear detonations.

So the scenario being offered is that some accident or other event leads to India and Pakistan suicidally using most of their nuclear weapons on each other.  Something to worry about?  Absolutely.  Likely?  Not terribly.  Preventable through the political efforts of U.S. environmentalists?  Gimme a break!

What is the solution?  That environmentalists are supposed to launch a “Ban the Bomb” campaign?  Gosh, I thought it was mainstream journalists who were the ones criticizing environmentalists for pie-in-the-sky solutions.  What precisely do you think are the chances of the world agreeing to ban all nuclear weapons — after more than half a century of trying by lots of people?  Well, it’s certainly no more likely — and probably far less likely — than the chances of the world agreeing to stabilize at 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, which at least is the stated policy of the leaders of a great many countries.

Moreover, if we actually did stabilize concentrations, that would have a considerably more direct benefit to many billions of people than reducing the risk from this not terribly likely nuclear scenario.

Finally, does Harrell seriously believe that a major campaign by environmentalists would increase the chances of a successful effort to ban the bomb?  If you thought the right went hard after “cap-and-tax,” just wait until they bring back the phrase “unilateral disarmament.”

I am completely in favor of efforts to continue to sharply reduce nuclear stockpiles around the globe — a policy that President Obama has actually pursued.  We should encourage security experts and pundits and politicians to pursue that effort.

Environmentalists, however, need to keep their eyes on the prize — sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — because if nothing else is clear from Eben Harrell’s column, even environmental reporters at leading publications do not seem to understand just how dire the consequences of continuing anywhere near our current emissions path: