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PostDirect and Indirect Effects of Nuclear Weapons (David Krieger, USA, 05/25/12 4:36 am)
In response to Cameron Sawyer (24 May), the direct effects of nuclear weapons are blast, fire and radiation. These effects took some 140,000 lives in Hiroshima and some 70,000 lives in Nagasaki by the end of 1945. These effects cause the threat or use of nuclear weapons to be illegal under international humanitarian law, because the weapons fail to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, cause unnecessary suffering, and would be disproportionate to a preceding attack. Such threat or use of nuclear weapons would also be immoral for the same reasons.
In addition, highly reputable atmospheric scientists now tell us that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which each side used 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons (they have more than this number) on the other side's cities, would have the following consequences: fires from the burning cities would put enough soot into the upper stratosphere to reduce warming sunlight for a decade; temperatures would fall globally; growing seasons would be shortened; and crops would fail, resulting in widespread famine with hundreds of millions of people, and perhaps a billion, dying of starvation.
Thus, the indirect effects of a nuclear war, even a small one by the standards of today's thermonuclear weapons, would be far greater than the direct effects, which are already bad enough. Also, the indirect effects of nuclear famine resulting from a regional nuclear war would be global. No corner of the globe would be immune from these effects. They would affect primarily those with already marginal food supplies. This strikes me as important information about nuclear arsenals that is not widely known. It is not a fairy tale.
Since the nuclear explosive power used in the above study is less than .5 percent of existing nuclear arsenals, it can be projected that a major nuclear war between the US and Russia could trigger the extinction of complex life on the planet. This may not be probable, but it is certainly not impossible. I would describe the general complacency of the leaders of nuclear weapon states to such potential omnicide as a crime against the future. The nuclear famine scenarios may provide a means of stirring humanity from its complacency and demanding more of its political leaders in terms of negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This would not be unilateral disarmament, and US leadership for this goal would certainly be helpful.
The scientists who have led the way on this issue are Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon (see, for example, Robock and Toon, "Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering," Scientific American, January 2010). The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War also has a new study out, "Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk, Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition," by Ira Helfand, MD.
I'm pleased that Cameron Sawyer joins me in viewing nuclear weapons abolition as an imperative. An interesting question to contemplate is whether the abolition of nuclear weapons, assuming the political will, would be possible in a world with widespread use of nuclear power.
JE comments: Calculating the indirect effects of an India-Pakistan nuclear war is an extremely valuable exercise, as many people outside South Asia have a "this wouldn't affect me" attitude. As David Krieger illustrates, even a "limited" nuclear exchange would impact everyone on our small planet.