Arms Races Increase Atomic Arsenals, Raising the Risk of Nuclear Winter
Climate scientist Alan Robock outlines the most recent research in the area of nuclear winter and how Trump’s withdrawal from the INF treaty dramatically increases the risk of a devastating nuclear winter that could wipe out practically all life on earth
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.
As recently reported by The Real News, the Trump administration has announced America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, one of the most important international treaties on nuclear arms reduction. In 1975, the world’s nuclear powers collectively possessed about 70,000 nuclear weapons. Thanks to a series of dramatic initiatives to reduce nuclear arsenals, including this intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement, the world’s nuclear powers now possess collectively about 14,500 nuclear warheads. And due to the dismantling of arms control treaties, that number now could expand substantially in a new nuclear arms race. But even the vastly reduced arsenals that exist today are enough to trigger a nuclear winter and to extinguish life on this planet as we know it.
Now here to discuss this with us is Professor Alan Robock. Professor Robock is a meteorologist and Associate Director of the Center for Environmental Prediction at Rutgers University where he is a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences. His expertise is in the environmental effects of aerosols in the atmosphere, whether from volcanoes, pollution, geoengineering or nuclear weapons. He currently serves on the editorial board of Reviews of Geophysics. Thank you very much for coming back onto The Real News, Professor Robock.
ALAN ROBOCK: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, first let’s talk in general terms about the concept of a nuclear winter. What does that term mean and what would it take in terms of a nuclear weapons conflict to generate a nuclear winter?
ALAN ROBOCK: Nuclear weapons targeted on cities and industrial areas start fires. Smoke from those fires goes up into the atmosphere and gets into the stratosphere, which is the layer above where we live, where there is no rain to wash it out and can last for years. If there’s enough smoke it will block out the sun, making it cold and dark at the earth’s surface and can even make temperatures below freezing in the summertime. That would kill all the crops and subject us to a global famine. That’s what we call nuclear winter.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And in terms of the scale of a nuclear exchange that would be required to generate one, or at least create a substantial risk of a nuclear winter arising, how big an exchange would that require?
ALAN ROBOCK: The current arsenals of the United States and Russia, if used in a war, could still produce nuclear winter. Even though, as you said, the arsenals have been going down over time, we still have enough to cause this.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, in a 2014 interview with The Real News you talked at some length about the research that you and others have done on the climactic effects of a nuclear conflict. And you stated that a full scale war between the U.S. and Russia would produce so much smoke, as you’ve just explained, the temperatures will get below freezing even in the summertime. And then you went on to talk about a smaller scale conflict and some research that you and colleagues had done on a conflict of that magnitude, say one involving India and Pakistan, each of which had at that time about 100 nuclear weapons.
And you stated that the results of your and your colleagues research were shocking to you, and you concluded that global temperatures would fall to colder than the Little Ice Age within a few months, even as a result of that smaller scale conflict. Since that 2014 interview, has there been further research into the potential climactic effects of a smaller scale nuclear war, or more generally, about a large scale nuclear war? And if so, what has that research shown?
ALAN ROBOCK: The India-Pakistan case we studied more than a decade ago. And we assume that each one would use 50 Hiroshima sized nuclear weapons with an explosive power of 15 kilotons. Since then, both India and Pakistan have more nuclear weapons and they have larger nuclear weapons. And the targets they might use, the megacities in India and Pakistan, have grown. So now we estimate that rather than 5 million tons of smoke, we could today have maybe 25 million tons of smoke, 5 times the amount, and that would produce a much larger climate response.
Today we’re using more modern climate models with much more detailed studies of the processes and we’re finding that the results done ten years ago are still duplicated, we’re still getting the same climate response. So it looks like it all depends, of course, on the scenario. What story do you want to tell about how a nuclear war might be fought and how many weapons would be used? But India and Pakistan have the potential to produce much more climate change than we studied 10 years ago.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: When we talk about climate change resulting from the production of greenhouse gases and their introduction into the atmosphere, we talk often about the level of confidence that scientists have in the proposition that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are warming the climate. What is the level of confidence that researchers have in terms of the climactic effects, the ones you’ve been talking about specifically, from a nuclear conflict? Do we have a very high level of confidence in these scenarios?
ALAN ROBOCK: Well, first of all, yes. We’re sure that carbon dioxide is causing global warming. As far as the aerosols, if you put aerosols, a cloud of particles, in the atmosphere and it blocks out the sunlight, the physics is very simple. Less sunlight gets to the ground and it gets colder and there’s less evaporation and there’s more rain. So we’re sure of that. The big question is how much smoke would there be? And so, that would depend on the scenario. What weapons would be used on what targets and how much smoke would they generate?
And we have a big project now to look into much more detail and we’re looking at conflicts between North Korea and the United States, between India and China, Israel using them if they fear an attack. And so, another question we’re looking at is if you say, “I have nuclear weapons and I’m using them to deter you from attacking me, and if you attack me I’m going to use my nuclear weapons on you,” how many weapons can a country use and still not kill themselves and still not produce so much climate change that their own agriculture would be threatened? And we think the number is pretty small – much, much smaller than our current arsenal.
And so, we’re going to look at using our modern tools, look at that number. Anything more than that, any threat more than that is basically acting like a suicide bomber and your enemy has to believe that you would do that. And this all leads, of course, to the treaty to ban nuclear weapons which was passed in the United Nations last year, which the United States has not signed yet. But the rest of the world is really pressuring the nuclear nations to get rid of their weapons because there’s really no safe usage of them. It’s hard to imagine a limited nuclear war once started that it wouldn’t continue, that generals wouldn’t use the biggest weapons that they have. So that’s what’s really scary. Once it starts, how do you stop it?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And I might add that Canada, the Trudeau government, also refused to sign that agreement, the one banning nuclear weapons, and even criticized the initiative. But let’s talk a little more about the Trump administration.
ALAN ROBOCK: I talked to the ambassador from Canada and they feel like they’re protected by NATO, by the U.S. nuclear weapons, which doesn’t make any sense to me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And just going back to the Trump administration, I mean certainly its withdrawal from the intermediate-range nuclear weapons accord would suggest that it is underestimating the risks arising from not only the maintenance of current stockpiles, but their modernization and potential expansion. But do you think that people within the Trump administration, particularly Pentagon planners, that they continue to accept what the scientific evidence is showing us about the potential for a nuclear winter arising from a conflict, or are they showing the kind of skepticism toward that science that the Trump administration has already shown toward the climate science community?
ALAN ROBOCK: I have no evidence that anybody in the Pentagon knows anything about nuclear winter. I’ve never seen them state that this is a concern of theirs. I went to a meeting last year and talked to some military people, and they said, “Look, we understand the effects of blast from nuclear weapons, we understand the effects of radio activity, but we don’t understand the effect of fires, and so in our current planning, we just ignore them.” And I said, “Well, if you tell us what you’re going to target, we’ll tell you how much smoke there’s going to be.”
“Well, we can’t tell you that secret.” So one of the things we want to do in our current research is to look at different scenarios and explain clearly what the effects of the smoke would be, not only on your enemy but on yourself. And I know no evidence that anybody in the Pentagon … we tried to get funding from them to study this, they weren’t interested in even learning about it, even giving us some money to support our research.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Professor Alan Robock, a meteorologist with expertise on the effects of nuclear conflict on the climate. Thank you very much for joining us again today, Professor Robock.
ALAN ROBOCK: Thanks very much for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News.