Why do we fast?

Let’s talk about nuclear winter, or The Other Climate Change. 

One of the greatest lies we campaigners tell ourselves to sleep at night, is that the prospect of global destruction by nuclear weapons is less likely now than, say, at the height of the Cold War, when the collective global stockpile of nuclear warheads sat at three times the number in circulation today. Fewer bombs equals less suffering, right? If only. Nuclear weapons don’t exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the dealings of mankind. Transport accidents, misfires, the threat of cyber-terrorism, strategic positioning of nuclear firepower in ‘host’ nations, increasing nuclear capability, and increasing military tensions between the growing number of countries with a nuclear stockpile, all contribute to the culture of nuclear insecurity in which we find ourselves today. The Doomsday Clock, as we are so fond of preaching, sits closer to midnight than ever before. 

But it’s not just about the likelihood of a bomb being used. It’s about what’s going to happen if it does, and how utterly unprepared we are for what will follow. Throughout the anti-nuclear campaign, we have often centered our understanding of the humanitarian crisis reaped by nuclear weapons purely in relation to the immediate impact of the bomb, and the long lasting medical consequences of direct or genetic exposure to radiation. We must take the time to consider that when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons, the horrors of the immediate impact, are likely only the beginning of a far longer sustained period of widespread suffering and harm.  –We think of the instant effect, death, radiation, but not the long term effects

Nuclear Famine theory first entered public discourse in the mid-1980s. Of course, anyone familiar with the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings would have been acutely aware of the practicalities of the issue. However the fact that the bombings had coincided with ‘Operation Starvation’ – a six month campaign of cutting off Japanese food supplies by the US Navy and Air Force – meant that analysis of the starvation caused solely by the bomb was impossible. An official count of the number of deaths in Japan caused by starvation in the initial Post-War years was never conducted, though Japanese scholarship puts the number at six figures. 

In the mid 1980s however, a group of more than 300 scientists from over 30 countries came together to create a report assessing The Environmental Impact of Nuclear War. Among their conclusions published in 1985, they predicted that in the aftermath of a global nuclear conflict, if adequate measures were not undertaken to preserve food security, the billions of survivors would be plunged into “massive levels of malnutrition and starvation,” even in non-violent countries, and, in dire situations, “only a small fraction of the current world population could expect to survive a few years”. In a similar publication by the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, it was stated that “the primary mechanism for human fatalities (in a nuclear war) would likely not be from blast effects, not from thermal radiation burns, and not from ionizing radiation, but, rather, from mass starvation”. 

This works on two levels.

The first is the immediate impact of nuclear war on food supplies and distribution chains. Stores of foodstuffs, pesticides and fertilizers, agricultural equipment, and transport lines for distribution can all be destroyed in the blasts of a strategic nuclear attack. The following uncontrollable fires can devastate crops in the fields and foodstuff stockpiles in the cities. 

Contamination of the water and soil will disrupt agricultural practices and strip much of the land’s fertility. Radioactive dust particles carried by the wind can contaminate surfaces miles from their origin (let us not forget that Scottish sheep were still being tested for radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl disaster in 2012). Unlike the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings, 21st century survivors will be all too aware of the dangers of eating contaminated food, and will thus be forced to make the impossible choice between starvation and possible irradiation. In the years that follow a nuclear war, the disruption of global distribution lines, the inevitable breakdown of the global economy and loss of incentive for international commerce, as well as the chaos of a society of displaced, sick and traumatised peoples, will only deteriorate the issue of global food security. 

The second is the issue of a nuclear winter, or, ‘The Other Climate Change’.

A Nuclear Winter specifically refers to the cooling of the Earth’s surface temperature, triggered by an injection of soot (in particular, black carbon caused by a firestorm) into the stratosphere, which would then block natural sunlight from reaching the earth and create a rapid cooling effect, disrupting agricultural practises and causing widespread famine in the process. This effect is not theoretically limited solely to nuclear explosions – the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1816 for example, caused a ‘year without a summer’ in the Northern Hemisphere which caused widespread crop failure, famine, and economic collapse. However these concerns were born out of the paranoia of the Cold War, amid fears of a global nuclear war in which black carbon would be released in unprecedented quantities, along with concerns about the amount of carbon already released from nuclear weapons tests – hence its name – ‘Nuclear Winter’. Many attribute the end of the Cold War nuclear arms race to the growth of these concerns, which forced nations to frame the use of nuclear weapons in terms of the damage done to non-combatant countries, as well as their own populations. 

Since the end of the Cold War, despite the depletion of the global stockpile of nuclear warheads, the risk of a nuclear winter has become less of a superstition and more of a very tangible threat, developing in tandem with the decline of global grain stockpiles, the growing number of nuclear-armed states, the promotion of low-yield nuclear weapons by world leaders, and the increasing strain placed on our climate’s natural balance. While the prospect of an ‘all-out’ global nuclear war seems less likely, the risks posed by even a ‘small scale’, regional conflict between two nuclear armed states continue to grow. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the scale of nuclear weapons development since the second world war. For reference, the Tsar Bomba tested by the Soviets in 1961, held the explosive capacity equivalent to 3800 Hiroshima sized explosions. In order to demonstrate the extent of the fragility of the current situation, contemporary studies on a nuclear winter focus on the premise of a regional conflict between two nations, such as India and Pakistan, each using one ‘small’ 15 kiloton thermonuclear warhead over an urban population. In this scenario, just 0.03% of the explosive power of the current global stockpile is enabled, a destructive force equivalent to ‘only’ 100 Hiroshima sized explosions. 

These studies have found that the heat caused by absorbing shortwave radiation would actually elevate the black carbon soot beyond just the injection caused by the blast of the explosion, situating it high within the stratosphere, meaning it would remain within the atmosphere for approximately six years – in comparison to one year following the Tambora volcanic eruption.

There would be a ‘global average surface cooling’ of 1.25 degrees Celsius, which would remain at 0.5 degrees cooler than average a decade later. A cooling of several degrees would occur over large areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with changes in temperature the most severe over land. 

US corn and soybean harvests would remain at a loss of 10% for a decade. Huge climatic disruption would be caused in all regions, even those far removed from the sites of detonation, including a global average decrease in rain of 10%, the reductions to monsoon season over the Asian continent being the most severe in this case. The resulting obstruction to wheat, rice and maize production in China alone, would create not only major food insecurity for the 1.3 billion in China, but also cause a famine putting at risk the lives of almost a billion already malnourished people living in developing countries, as well as the food supplies for the entire populations of countries highly reliant on food imports, which would likely be halted as panic and hoarding began to take place on an international scale. This would also presumably lead to gross inflation in global food prices, making food inaccessible to the world’s poorest in every nation. United Nations grain reserves in 2020 (let’s be kind and assume they’re unaffected by contamination and food is highly rationed) currently sit at roughly enough grain for four months. 

In the face of human starvation at an unparalleled scale, what more of a wake up call is needed for the nuclear powers of today to disarm? There exists today an unprecedented transparency of information about nuclear weapons, how they came to exist, how they have been used, and what they are ultimately capable of. The censorship that prevailed in the decades after the second world war has been lifted, along with many secrets of the Cold War. Atmospheric weapons tests have been replaced with virtual simulations capable of calculating every aspect of damage caused. Hibakusha voices have been amplified across the world. The Red Cross has stated that they would not be able to provide relief following a nuclear attack. Low quality simulation technology is freely available online – I’ve been known to break it out in the classroom to let the kids see for themselves how different kiloton yields and blast zones work.

How is it that in the face of such freedom of knowledge, we have found ourselves in 2020, at only one hundred seconds to Midnight? And, more importantly, how much closer will we allow ourselves to get?

Leave a Comment