How a Limited Nuclear War Could Cause Worldwide Famine

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The Atomic Bomb Dome is seen in silhouette during sunset over the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on Aug. 5, the eve of the 68th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese city. A new report warns that a "limited" nuclear conflict using 100 times the atomic firepower of the attack on Hiroshima could cause worldwide famine.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
Dec. 10, 2013, 7:31 a.m.

A hy­po­thet­ic­al nuc­le­ar war in South Asia could trig­ger world­wide fam­ine and “prob­ably cause the end mod­ern in­dus­tri­al civil­iz­a­tion as we know it,” the lead au­thor of a new re­port tells Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

Pub­lished by the watch­dog group Phys­i­cians for So­cial Re­spons­ib­il­ity, the re­port, titled “Nuc­le­ar Fam­ine: Two Bil­lion People at Risk,” up­dates pri­or stud­ies on the po­ten­tial im­pacts that a “lim­ited” nuc­le­ar war between In­dia and Pakistan could have on the glob­al cli­mate, and con­sequently on food sup­plies.

The pri­or re­search, pub­lished in 2012, pre­dicted that corn and soy­bean pro­duc­tion in the United States would de­cline 10 per­cent on av­er­age for 10 years. It also pro­jec­ted a de­cline in Chinese middle-sea­son rice pro­duc­tion — on av­er­age by 21 per­cent dur­ing the first four years and on av­er­age 10 per­cent in the fol­low­ing six.

At the time, Phys­i­cians for So­cial Re­spons­ib­il­ity said these ef­fects could “put more than one bil­lion people at risk of star­va­tion.” The new fore­cast re­leased on Tues­day in­dic­ates the num­ber of people at risk of star­va­tion would ac­tu­ally be double that fig­ure, the group says.

The fresh ana­lys­is in­cludes a study com­pleted this fall show­ing there could be even lar­ger drops in Chinese winter wheat pro­duc­tion. These crops could de­cline by 50 per­cent dur­ing the first year and by more than 30 per­cent over 10 years.

In­creas­ing prices would ex­acer­bate the short­age of avail­able food, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, which goes on to call for the elim­in­a­tion of nuc­le­ar weapons “as quickly as pos­sible.”

“Sig­ni­fic­ant, sus­tained ag­ri­cul­tur­al short­falls over an ex­ten­ded peri­od would al­most cer­tainly lead to pan­ic and hoard­ing on an in­ter­na­tion­al scale as food ex­port­ing na­tions sus­pen­ded ex­ports in or­der to as­sure ad­equate food sup­plies for their own pop­u­la­tions,” the re­port says. “This tur­moil in the ag­ri­cul­tur­al mar­kets would fur­ther re­duce ac­cess­ible food.”

Ira Hel­fand, a med­ic­al doc­tor from Northamp­ton, Mass., who served as the lead au­thor of the re­port, told GSN the data shows that the equi­val­ent of 100 Hiroshi­ma-size bombs could “prob­ably cause the end mod­ern in­dus­tri­al civil­iz­a­tion as we know it.”

A con­flict of this size would rep­res­ent the use of about half the nuc­le­ar ar­sen­als that In­dia and Pakistan pos­sess, or a “tiny por­tion” of the U.S. and Rus­si­an stock­piles, ac­cord­ing to Hel­fand.

“This is an un­be­liev­ably huge shock to the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem,” Hel­fand said. “We saw what happened to the world’s eco­nomy when the hous­ing bubble col­lapsed in the United States — [here] we’re talk­ing about a shock to the in­ter­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic-so­cial sys­tem or­ders of mag­nitude lar­ger than that. I think it’s quite hard to ima­gine how this much-more-fra­gile-than-we’d-like-to-think sys­tem can sur­vive that.”

Ac­cord­ing to Hel­fand, the chain of events that would lead to such cata­strophe is as fol­lows:

Firestorms caused by nuc­le­ar det­on­a­tions would launch more than 6 mil­lion met­ric tons of soot in­to the Earth’s at­mo­sphere — block­ing out sun­light and caus­ing a sort of glob­al cool­ing ef­fect com­monly re­ferred to as “nuc­le­ar winter.”

The cool­ing and oth­er an­ti­cip­ated cli­ma­to­lo­gic­al im­pacts — such as de­creased pre­cip­it­a­tion — sub­stan­tially re­duce crop yields, which in turn causes dis­rup­ted mar­kets and fam­ine.

“Even a lim­ited use of nuc­le­ar weapons es­sen­tially is an act of sui­cide,” Hel­fand said. “These weapons simply have to be un­der­stood to be com­pletely use­less. From the U.S. per­spect­ive, if we were to use even a tiny frac­tion of our own ar­sen­al against an ad­versary on the oth­er side of the plan­et, we would end up caus­ing this glob­al cata­strophe that would have ter­rible re­per­cus­sions here at home.”

Hel­fand ar­gued that, in light of such in­form­a­tion, Pres­id­ent Obama and oth­er world lead­ers are not pur­su­ing ag­gress­ively enough ef­forts to re­duce and elim­in­ate nuc­le­ar arms.

“There is this no­tion at the mo­ment in policy circles that we don’t really have to worry about nuc­le­ar war — just nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism be­cause the U.S. and Rus­sia are nev­er go­ing to fight a war,” Hel­fand said. “I don’t know where they get that sense of con­fid­ence from — I cer­tainly don’t have it watch­ing the jock­ey­ing between the U.S. and Rus­sia over the last year and know­ing how many times we have stumbled ac­ci­dent­ally in­to near-dis­aster situ­ations even after the end of the Cold War.”

Ef­forts the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has made to­ward arms re­duc­tions have been heav­ily cri­ti­cized by con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, who fear that the pres­id­ent might pur­sue ad­di­tion­al re­duc­tions uni­lat­er­ally — without re­cip­roc­al cuts by Rus­sia — des­pite the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­ser­tions to the con­trary.

Rose Got­te­moeller, Obama’s nom­in­ee to be un­der­sec­ret­ary of State for arms con­trol and in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity, faced sharp ques­tions on this top­ic dur­ing her con­firm­a­tion hear­ing in Septem­ber. Got­te­moeller said “uni­lat­er­al re­duc­tions are not on the table,” a re­sponse that did not sat­is­fy some Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors.

The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee voted to ap­prove Got­te­moeller’s nom­in­a­tion, but her con­firm­a­tion has yet to be taken up on the Sen­ate floor.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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