Thinking Existentially about the Worldwide Threat

Image Source: AP

By Greg Thielmann

A panel of scientists provided a useful update today on the latest thinking about the climatic consequences of nuclear weapons use. The presentation provided a grim reminder that the nuclear Sword of Damocles still hangs over all nations of the earth, nuclear and non-nuclear powers alike – notwithstanding the significant achievement of New START ratification by the United States and Russia.

At the annual meeting in Washington of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Georgiy Stenchikov (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), Luke Oman (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), and Michael Mills (National Center for Atmospheric Research) shared results of their research, benefiting from extensive studies of related phenomenon in recent decades, such as massive forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and oil well fires. Unlike the "nuclear winter" studies of the 1980s, which focused on the impact of an all-out US-Soviet nuclear exchange, the latest research looked at the environment effects of a more limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

The speakers reported on their estimates of the environmental consequences resulting from theoretical detonation of 100 15kt-yield nuclear weapons over Indian and Pakistani cities. In such an exchange, millions of tons of soot in the smoke plumes from urban fires would be lofted into the stratosphere, circulating around the earth within days, but adversely affecting the ozone layer, world temperatures, and precipitation for years.

During the discussion which followed, the scientists noted the general lack of public awareness of the existing danger to the world's environment posed by the prospect of nuclear weapons use. Indeed release of the U.S. Intelligence Community's "Worldwide Threat Assessment" only a few days earlier underscored the common absence of attention to the issue.

A previous posting summarized some key elements of continuity and change in the annual publication. Other conspicuous omissions are noteworthy. The 34-page statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper referred to "significant improvements in US-Russian relations" and mentioned signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. It did not mention that when implementation of treaty reductions is completed in seven years, the nuclear forces of both countries will still be sized and oriented toward annihilating each other with sufficient destructive power to create "collateral" environmental damage threatening life in all corners of the planet.

The intelligence community assessed that "terrorism will remain at the forefront of our national security threats over the coming year." With regard to South Asia, India's ties to Pakistan were described as "largely unchanged." Pakistan was acknowledged to be the base of al-Qa'ida's leadership and cadre organization. The assessment did not mention any concern with Pakistan's increases in its plutonium production capacity, with the size of its assessed nuclear arsenal or about the implications of political instability for terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons.

The intelligence community's assessment dropped last year's environmental reference to the national security implications of climate change, but it did introduce a new warning about "the growing proliferation of state and non-state actors providing medical assistance..."

In attempting to convince Mikhail Gorbachev that missile defense was the path out of the balance of terror, Ronald Reagan wistfully shared his fantasy of a Martian threat uniting the two superpowers on the Planet Earth. We should perhaps wish instead for a Martian perspective to provide a more objective assessment of the most significant worldwide threats the earth faces today.