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Is Time’s Eben Harrell serious in his EcoCentric post, “Why Nukes are the Most Urgent Environmental Threat”

By Joe Romm on February 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm

"Is Time’s Eben Harrell serious in his EcoCentric post, “Why Nukes are the Most Urgent Environmental Threat”"


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Environmentalists: Wake up! There is a greater and more urgent threat to the climate than even global warming: the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Uhh, no.

As someone who spent a lot of time working on issues related to the threat posed by nuclear weapons — I was actually a Congressional science fellow two decades ago for a senior member of the House Armed Services committee — I think everyone should be very worried about nuclear weapons.

I even think that the scenario Time‘s Eben Harrell lays out is plausible:

… climate scientists have used advanced climate modeling to show that even a small exchange of nuclear weapons””between 50-100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, which India and Pakistan already have their in arsenal””would produce enough soot and smoke to block out sunlight, cool the planet, and produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history.

Scary? It gets worse. New research by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) suggests that the above scenario of a “limited” nuclear war would also burn a hole through the ozone layer, allowing extreme levels of ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, which would greatly damage agriculture and most likely lead to a global nuclear famine.

It seems it does not take a cold war posture of MAD””mutually assured destruction””to threaten civilization as we know it.

Presenting the research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington D.C. last week, NCAR scientist Michael Mills explained that the heat and soot in the stratosphere following limited nuclear war would lead to “low-ozone” columns over cities, which would increase cancer rates and eye damage dramatically. But the ozone loss would be so great that it would also have serious repercussions for plant life, including  “plant height reduction, decreased shoot mass, and reduction in foliage area” and long-term genetic instability. Another risk is depletion of phytoplankton that feed sea life.

“It would be very difficult for us to grow the type of crops we grow today,” Mills said, according to Global Security Newswire. “In addition to ecological damage, there would be a global nuclear famine.”


So if, say, India and Pakistan were suicidal enough to each drop 25 to 50 nuclear bombs on each other, directly killing many tens of millions of people, sickening hundreds of millions of people, and rendering vast tract of land in both countries uninhabitable for a very long time, then models say it would lead to global climatic problems that would seriously harm agriculture.

Let’s temporarily set aside the fact that human-caused climate change appears to be directly impacting agriculture around the globe already (see CP’s series on food insecurity) — and it’s going to get infinitely worse if we do nothing about it.

If the Indians and Pakistanis were so irrationally self-destructive — which I don’t believe for a minute (we and the Russians managed to avoid it for over half a century) — then precisely what is the world going to do to persuade them not to pursue this course?

Harrell writes:

Since the end of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear war has diminished. So, in turn, has concern among the world’s population and political leaders about the presence of nuclear weapons.

But there are still 20,000 nuclear weapons on the planet as I type this. And as I have argued in the past, simple probability theory tells us that if these nuclear weapons exist indefinitely, they will definitely be used. While it may be difficult to imagine an intentional nuclear war between Russia and the U.S, an accidental exchange remains a threat. And as the New York Times editorial page warned on Feb. 20, Pakistan and India are locked in a dangerous””but often overlooked””nuclear arms race.

The presence of nuclear weapons””and the potential proliferation of atom bombs to new countries””is a grave environmental threat. Greens need to wake up to this reality, and recognize they should do more to protect the climate than fret over carbon emissions. It’s time for environmentalists to renew an old slogan: Ban the Bomb. Now.

Ahh, the scenario has morphed.  Now it’s a matter of probability that somewhere an accident will occur.  Perhaps — but then the U.S. and Russia are the ones with the overwhelming majority of the 20,000 and that is where the accident is far more likely to occur under this purely probabilistic analysis.  And it still remains exceedingly unlikely that such an accident would lead to 50 to 100 nuclear detonations.

So the scenario being offered is that some accident or other event leads to India and Pakistan suicidally using most of their nuclear weapons on each other.  Something to worry about?  Absolutely.  Likely?  Not terribly.  Preventable through the political efforts of U.S. environmentalists?  Gimme a break!

What is the solution?  That environmentalists are supposed to launch a “Ban the Bomb” campaign?  Gosh, I thought it was mainstream journalists who were the ones criticizing environmentalists for pie-in-the-sky solutions.  What precisely do you think are the chances of the world agreeing to ban all nuclear weapons — after more than half a century of trying by lots of people?  Well, it’s certainly no more likely — and probably far less likely — than the chances of the world agreeing to stabilize at 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, which at least is the stated policy of the leaders of a great many countries.

Moreover, if we actually did stabilize concentrations, that would have a considerably more direct benefit to many billions of people than reducing the risk from this not terribly likely nuclear scenario.

Finally, does Harrell seriously believe that a major campaign by environmentalists would increase the chances of a successful effort to ban the bomb?  If you thought the right went hard after “cap-and-tax,” just wait until they bring back the phrase “unilateral disarmament.”

I am completely in favor of efforts to continue to sharply reduce nuclear stockpiles around the globe — a policy that President Obama has actually pursued.  We should encourage security experts and pundits and politicians to pursue that effort.

Environmentalists, however, need to keep their eyes on the prize — sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — because if nothing else is clear from Eben Harrell’s column, even environmental reporters at leading publications do not seem to understand just how dire the consequences of continuing anywhere near our current emissions path:

Koch-Powered Tea Party pushes climate denial bill in New Hampshire: “Neither man nor cow is responsible for global warming.”

Big Oil gains from higher prices while families pay the price

34 Responses to Is Time’s Eben Harrell serious in his EcoCentric post, “Why Nukes are the Most Urgent Environmental Threat”

  1. Wit's End says:

    I gosh, I’m glad to see that I am “fretting.” I had thought I was f#&*ing PANICKING!!!

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    After an air burst, fission products, un-fissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues vaporized by the heat of the fireball condense into a fine suspension of small particles 10 nm to 20 µm in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly if the explosive yield exceeds 10 kt.
    Atmospheric nuclear weapon tests almost doubled the concentration of radioactive 14C in the Northern Hemisphere, before levels slowly declined following the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

    Initially little was known about the dispersion of nuclear fallout on a global scale. The AEC assumed that fallout would be dispersed evenly across the globe by atmospheric winds and gradually settle to the Earth’s surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout. Nuclear products were deposited in the Northern Hemisphere becoming “far more dangerous than they had originally been estimated.”

    The radio-biological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one because of the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes (such as strontium-90 and caesium-137) in the body as a result of ingestion of foods containing the radioactive materials. This hazard is less pertinent than local fallout, which is of much greater immediate operational concern.

    The main problem with nuclear war means global sustained impact for a long period and that global carbon sequestration might be rendered impossible. Loosing the instruments to prevent worst case scenarios.

  3. Zetetic says:

    I wonder if it’s occurred to Eben Harrell that in an world afflicted with even greater levels of chaos and instability than today, due to the effects of AGW, that the use of weapons of mass destruction becomes more likely as countries become increasingly desperate.

    IMO, the more stable the world as whole is, the less likely it is for such weapons to be used.

  4. climate undergrad says:

    As always, wonderful commentary Joe.

    Both climate change and nuclear bombs are threats to people and the environment.

    Even if Mr. Harrells insanely ludicrous ‘ban the bomb’ crusade were to completely eliminate nuclear weapons, climate change would still exist.

    So not only does he insist that environmentalists (how about the rest of the people?) choose only one of these threats to ‘wake up’ to, he manages to choose something more unlikely and politically infeasible than preventing destructive climate change?

    Thats not easy to do…

  5. crf says:

    Excellent article, Joe!

    I can imagine Harrel admonishing his Doctor:

    “You doctors keep telling us to improve our diets, excercise, and take our regimented drugs. But health problems we see everyday: obesity, lack of fitness, and non-treatment of symptoms are not the biggest health issues! Drop all that, and concentrate on preventing EBOLA from killing us all!”

  6. John Mason says:


    Agree with your outlook. But in particular, this bit of Harrel’s piece arouses my curiosity:

    “Presenting the research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington D.C. last week, NCAR scientist Michael Mills explained that the heat and soot in the stratosphere following limited nuclear war would lead to “low-ozone” columns over cities, which would increase cancer rates and eye damage dramatically.”

    Have such phenomena – “low-ozone columns” – been identified over the areas of e.g. the Pacific and the Russian Arctic where surface and airburst nuclear test-detonations of some fairly big beasties took place?

    That aside (and I’m interested in what people think about it), these are relatively localised effects in comparison to those caused by widespread climate destabilisation.

    Cheers – John

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    These issues intersect and can synthesize in many ways.

    Before nuclear weapons, very few seemed to imagine that humanity could bring about its own end (I’d like to hear any examples, probably from science fiction fans). At the Trinity test of the first nuclear weapon in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian and science head of the Manhattan Project, quoting the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita said, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    It took at least a decade to realize that local effects like a nuclear blast produced regional effects like radiation, then another few decades into the 1980s with the work by Turco, Toon, Sagan and others to realize that a full nuclear change would bring about what they called a “nuclear winter” where the particulates would block so much sunlight that photosynthesis would be interrupted much as it was after the asteroid impact that contributed to the killing of the dinosaurs (there might have been other factors, from a conflagration of the global atmosphere to the asteroid impact triggering the Deccan traps that found coal seams that burned and emitted CO2).

    And so it is with coal. First the local effects were obvious to anyone (including Queen Elizabeth, who restricted its burning) in first London and then other English industrial cities like Manchester and first Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvanian cities in the U.S.

    It took until the 1960s (for most, there are always pioneering scientists who realize it earlier, in the cases of acid rain as with climate change going back in the mid-1800s) to realize that all the coal burning was causing acid rain to fall downwind of power plants.

    Then it took until the 1980s (for most) to realize that the burning of coal was changing our climate for certain, while enough of a nuclear attack could change the climate if it happened.

    Brian Toon told me that his latest paper indicates that a full-scale nuclear exchange between Indian and Pakistan could kill maybe a billion of the world’s poorest subsistence farmers who would have a hard time adapting. (Interesting if there were only Peak Oil and not Climate Change, the poorest subsistence farmers could arguably survive longer than most city dwellers.)

    Stephen Schneider ran models also beginning in the 1980s that instead concluded that instead of a nuclear winter there would be a nuclear fall and sometimes it would be below freezing for long periods and sometimes not, while the Turco, Toon, Sagan study concluded (or others concluded based on their data) that the average temperature in breadbaskets like Iowa and Ukraine would never get above freezing for two years.

    While Schneider was perhaps being more precise, at least Toon and I suspect the others felt that he was grandstanding, and Sagan and Schneider didn’t speak for many years afterward.

    We need to put our ego-selves away and let our authentic selves speak, and in the proportion that we do this we won’t make binary, either-or statements like Time makes here. Nuclear weapons should be a grave concern to everyone. Just because the world has dodged a bullet for 66 years doesn’t mean it can dodge all nuclear bullets for another 66.

    While the risk of a full exchange in anger between the U.S. and Russia has gone down (but the two could easily become antagonists again, or either or both with China), and hopefully the risk of accidental exchanges has also gone down, the risk of nuclear war involving Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran (when they get nuclear weapons), North Korea and other nations has increased dramatically.

    Also the risk of a 9/11-type nuclear terrorist attack has increased greatly over the last two decades. The 9/11 attack alone triggered or excused two wars involving the U.S. that have lasted most of a decade, as well as the curtailing of American’s civil liberties. What could happen with a nuclear attack?

    So yes, we should be concerned about nuclear weapons of all kinds from all sources. When a destructive detonation occurs, it could be a game changer and accelerate many horrible trends that are already accelerating themselves.

    But destructive climate change is a certainty, and without being addressed it will have impacts arguably greater than even the worst nuclear war. These impacts just take longer to happen. So nuclear weapons are like a horrific airliner crash that gathers world media attention, while climate change is like one fatal car crash after another, their numbers increasing until the victims total far more than all airliners crashing together could, with one, two and even seven or nine billion victims ultimately possible.

  8. cervantes says:

    While I agree that an all-out exchange between India and Pakistan is unlikely, the possibility should be taken seriously. Pakistan’s military has a substantial contingent of radical religio-mystical nationalists at very high levels, and India has had belligerently nationalistic government quite recently. The support by high ranking Pakistani military and security elements for militant groups that have committed atrocities in India is incontrovertible. Another incident like the Mumbai massacre could well lead to open hostilities, at a time when the Pakistani state is unstable and could well fall to irresponsible extremists. Nobody has to start out intending a full-scale nuclear war, but one thing can lead to another. This would indeed be an unimaginable disaster and you are wrong to be so dismissive.

    It is not within the power of environmentalists, or the U.S. government, to do much to defuse this situation right now, but it certainly ought to be a goal that underlies everyone’s approach to that part of the world.

    Note that India and China are also rivals, and that unanticipated events can unfold at astonishing speed, as we are all seeing right now. Nuclear weapons are indeed something we all ought to be concerned about and while we’re a long way from eliminating them every thoughtful person should put this near the top of the long-range agenda for humanity. That includes you, JR.

  9. Robert Huie says:

    And what is most likely to lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? A collapse of agricultural as a consequence of climate change and other such problems.

  10. This kind of nuclear delusionism really messes up setting rational policy.

    The nuclear power plant and a bomb are essentially the same event in different ranges of explosion efficiency… A bomb in the hands of terrorists may or may not be a big boom – it could be a big fizzle – a dirty bomb is more like a Chernobyl reactor.
    Nuclear bombs are not like fireworks. With a firecracker, you make it with a fuse and put it on the shelf till you want to lite it off. A nuclear bomb is fueled with an incredibly unstable source that is difficult to make, and horribly burdensom to store, and quickly destabilizes again. Imaging something so radioactive that it very shortly irradiates the containers, surrounding circuitry, everything that goes into holding and deliverying the bomb degrades and corrodes and has to be rebuilt or refreshed regularly. Like re-rolling a firecracker.

    The impetus is to quickly explode the bomb, either in a test, or in a war. But as soon as you do, you have to make another to replace it – and having only one or two, just will not do. So any nuclear power is stuck in a sink-hole spiral of astounding spending to build, maintain, protect, test and at least pretend to deploy, and then start all over to replace what they lose. Soon enough, any nuclear power learns it is expensively dumb to keep this up. The key is manufacturing the fuel and then protecting it. John McPhee’s “The Curve of Binding Energy” is an excellent book.

    Of course, it may be smart for a stable government to fully control all nuke fuel for any strategic deployment – energy preferable to bombs.. but this includes getting people worried about a nuclear war, or distracting them from the more important – and more inevitable dangers.

    Humans have not well accounted for energy, certainly do not control it well, and allow by-products to harm our future. Perhaps carbon fuel should be controlled more like nuclear.

  11. Josh says:


    I would also add that melting Himalayan glaciers — and the ensuing water crisis — will almost certainly exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they battle over scarce resources. So reducing carbon emissions has the corrollary effect of decreasing the probability of nuclear war between the two countries.

    (This is, of course, on top of the internal instability that extreme weather events like the recent Pakistani flooding) may bring to either country.)

  12. john atcheson says:

    So we have a short term catastrophe, followed by a longer term one — and we’re supposed to, what? Do a dancing with the stars type vote to see which is worst?

    What is the point of an article like Eben’s?

    I’ll take my global catastrophe without the pre-rinse, thank you. Or not at all.

  13. Tony O'Brien says:

    That there would be a new more powerful weapon developed used twice and not used again for 66 years is simply unimaginable, and yet that is what has happened.

    Ban the bomb; I would love to. But it will not happen. Countries may hide their weapons, but there is no way they will get rid of all of them. Even so if we could reduce the worlds nuclear stockpile, that would be a good thing.

    Yet with climate change people are already hurting and it will get worse, possibly much worse. It would almost seem that we are trying to make mankind extinct.

    Rabid Doomsayer

  14. Russell says:

    The end of the world isn’t what it used to be .

    When the ‘nuclear winter” hypothesis made its debut at the height of the Cold War. Carl Sagan made it perfectly clear that he was predicting an apocalypse, with climate model optical depths of 20 plunging temperatures far below zero for hundreds of days.

    The model being advertised in Time and elsewhere today- you can see it animated at


    assumes a maximum optical depth of 1- that’s 20 powers of e , or about a factor of a million brighter than Sagan’s worst-case model , and where his comparable ( tens of megatons) tactical war scenario projected a total cooling of many thousands of degree days , ( same as a New England winter ) the current one projects a just few hundred- what kind of existential threat is a winter in Orlando? The revival of this cold war factoid seems related to the recent demise of its most conspicuous critic, Steve Schneider.

    Nuclear war remains as terrifying as before , but If anything qualifies as climate denial it is this sort of quantitative rejection of science .

  15. davidgswanger says:

    Richard Brenne @7: Sorry to be responding so late to your comments.

    You said: “Before nuclear weapons, very few seemed to imagine that humanity could bring about its own end (I’d like to hear any examples, probably from science fiction fans).” Being a science fiction fan, who once listed sf novels about global warning here, I thought I’d give it a shot.

    The first such speculation I know of is a comment in Jules Verne’s first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and goes as follows:

    “Besides,” said Kennedy, “that may prove to be a very dull period when industry will swallow up every thing for its own profit. By dint of inventing machinery, men will end in being eaten up by it! I have always fancied that the end of the earth will be when some enormous boiler, heated to three thousand millions of atmospheric pressure, shall explode and blow up our Globe!”

    “And I add that the Americans,” said Joe, “will not have been the last to work at the machine!”

    This was in 1862. The first story I know of in which a potential human-
    caused end of the world is a plot point, a genuine threat, would be 1871′s “The Case of Summerfield” by William Henry Rhodes, which you can find on the Net. In this, which originally appeared in a newspaper as an allegedly true story (making this a hoax rather than straightforward fiction), a mad scientist, of the type seen in Shelley, Hawthorne, and Verne, demonstrates the power to make water burn, and attempts to blackmail the world with its potential destruction, not unlike a Bond villain. This is, of course, averted, as it would be in most examples over the next fifty years.

    The first novel of this sort I’m aware of is Robert Cromie’s “The Crack of Doom”, from 1895, in which something like atomic energy threatens the world; making the threat more credible is the revelation that inhabitants of the fifth planet destroyed their world with it, creating the asteroid belt (and an minor recurring motif which showed up in several stories about asteroids). The first story in which the mad scientist succeeds is probably 1899′s “The Violet Flame,” by Fred T. Jane, best known for founding the nonfiction guide Jane’s Fighting Ships; but its disintegrator ray (such weapons became popular in the aftermath of the discovery of X-rays in 1895)leaves the narrator and his wife as a new Adam & Eve, so it is not a complete obliteration. I haven’t been able to track down the first story to finish the job totally, but would guess it came after World War I, when such stories became much grimmer and serious as the threats became more believable. Their credibility (and numbers) soared even higher, as you suggested, after World War II, which is where we came in.

    So there were stories of this type a good seventy years before Hiroshima, but it took a while for their threats to become truly plausible, unlike now, when they are all-too-convincing. I realize this is all a bit off-topic, but the question was asked, and I hope the answer has been of some interest and relevance. Should you or anyone else want to pursue this further, I would recommend The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2nd edition, by John Clute & Peter Nicholls.

  16. Eben Harrell says:

    Hi Joe, thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I’m glad my blog stirred some debate. A few points of clarification as my post was quite short.

    1) I don’t think that environmentalists should choose between focusing on disarmament and focusing on emissions. Why can’t we do both?

    [JR: They could, but from the perspective of the public policy community, politicians, and the media, environmentalists don't have anywhere near as much credibility or standing to speak on disarmament as they do on emissions. It isn't just the goal (low emissions, no nukes) that one must be expert on to engage in a public debate. You need a whole lot of expertise and credibility on the policies needed to get there. In the case of disarmament, that involves international negotiations, military security, technical verification, the history of negotations -- all things that require years of study to credibly engage on -- or else the media and your opponents label you as naive and uninformed.]

    2) I think you are underestimating the nuclear risk when you call it “exceedingly unlikely.” Over a time frame of 50-100 years, I think the risk is significant. For instance, let’s say the chance of limited nuclear war is one half of one percent each year. That adds up to roughly a 25% fatality rate for a child born today. That’s not an “exceedingly small” risk, is it? Here’s a really fascinating article on nuclear risk: http://nuclearrisk.org/soaring_article.php

    [JR: I don't think the "chance of limited nuclear war" is anywhere near that high. There is certainly no evidence that it is. That 'might' be chance of a single accident. And your math on the fatality rate makes no sense. You're assuming this would wipe out a large fraction of human life. Based on what, one or two studies and the interpretations of the author? I suspect the vast majority of Americans would survive such an event. But if one study about some hypothetical unlikely future has you bothered, I REALLY wish you would read the vast scientific literature on climate change, which is publishing many many dozens of studies a year that make clear our highly probable future would be devastating to a large fraction of the planet, for a very, very long time. Start here. Then go here. And, of course, here.]

    3) Of course I don’t think that environmentalists will manage to “ban the bomb” with the help of a few placards and letters to politicians. How we get to zero is an overwhelmingly daunting prospect. But does that mean green shouldn’t even try? I recycle my aluminum cans not because I think it will make any real difference in of itself but because I know that if everyone recycles it will send a message to politicians about the political mood of the electorate. And that’s how real change happens, right?

    [JR: Yes, but you don't own any nukes, do you? Nor do enviros. So there is no individual effort comparable to recycling. Also, I suspect sending a message isn't the only reason you recycle. I recycle because it's the right thing to do.]

    Of course emissions-fueled climate change is an urgent and important issue–and I have said as much in other blog postings. There are lots of other worthy environmental issues–saving the tigers, the safety of lithium miners in Bolivia, etc–and I know that we can’t fight every battle. But nuclear disarmament carries the risk of such grave damage to our climate and environment and civilization that I think it is the responsibility of environmentalists to put disarmament on top of their action agenda.

    Hope that clarifies things. We may still disagree, of course!

    [JR: I'd say the exact reverse of your conclusion is true -- if one or two studies gets you concerned about the environmental impact of an unlikely event (limited nuclear war), then you should be unimaginably concerned about the many dozens of studies about the multiple catastrophes we face with high probability on our current emissions path. And no, I don't think climate change should be placed in the same paragraph as saving the tigers, since if we don't stop catastrophic climate change, efforts to save the tigers will almost certainly be doomed to fail.]

  17. Robert says:

    How long before some bright spark suggests controlling global temperatures by letting off H-bombs from time to time from somewhere suitably off the beaten track like the Arizona desert?

    The ultimate geo-engineerng solution to climate change.

  18. Eben Harrell says:

    Joe, point taken that limited nuclear war would be unlikely to doom a random American child to an early death—though, as my original blog post lays out, it probably would cause massive and sudden climate change that would likely lead to a global famine.

    Also, I got the math wrong, too. Here, let me just paraphrase from Hellman’s article: Even ⅓% [not one half per cent] chance of nuclear war per year adds up to roughly a 25% chance for a child born today.”

    So apologies for that, but it turns out I underestimated the risk. Of course, these are just probability games. It’s impossible to know what the actual chance of nuclear war is each year–it could be much lower than 1/3%. Or it could be higher. One thing is certain, and I find this probability lesson clarifying: Because the threat of nuclear war is not zero, even a small chance of war each year, multiplied over a number of years, adds up to the likelihood that the weapons will be used. It’s a question of when.

    As for the rest, we certainly agree that climate change from greenhouse gasses is a problem that MUST be addressed. I find the studies you cite alarming, too.

    But I think we part ways when I state that the abolition of nuclear weapons is a more urgent environmental challenge—even a limited nuclear war would probably cause climate change more severe and more swift than any such change in human history, including the change happening right now.

    I wish the (weak, half-forgotten, too-often-divided) nuclear disarmament movement could count more environmentalists in its ranks. It could use your knowledge and clarity of purpose! Wherever you place it on the global ranking of concern, please think of nuclear weapons as an environmental—as well as a security—issue. That’s a reasonable request, right?

    Best wishes,


    [JR: I think the goal of steadily reducing the number of nuclear weapons is an important one. As for the environmental impact you cite, I'm not certain we have the scientific confidence to say "probably" for the detonation of 50 to 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs. That will need to be argued out in the scientific literature -- hopefully we'll never actually find out in the real world. As you know, in the case of climate change, many of the most concerned scientists are worried not simply because of what the models say, but because of the paleoclimate history.]

  19. penn says:

    I’m all for nuclear disarmament, and I agree that the goal should be zero at some point. But, I HATE the exercise with the 0.5% chance per year. That’s just a number chosen because it sounds really small, but leads to catastrophe when added year on year. It’s completely baseless and arbitrary and nothing useful can come of it. Does anyone really think the odds of a nuclear exchange in a given year is 1 in 200? I think 1 in 1000 would be conservative, and would leave less than a 10% chance of an exchange in the next century. Given that the odds of catastrophic climate change are well above 90% unless we start to take massive steps quickly, I don’t see why this should be a priority. Especially since, as Joe mentioned, environmentalists are in general not experts on geopolitics, nuclear proliferation and disarmament.

  20. Heraclitus says:

    This looks to me like a variation on the ‘over-population is the real problem’ argument, which allows people to focus on actions that don’t mean any real change in their own lives. We should all work towards nuclear disarmament just as we should all work towards sensible measures to reduce population growth, but realistically for most of us there is nothing we can do to directly influence either of these things. However, we can make changes in our lives that will have a real and direct impact on future climate and we have a personal responsibility to make these changes.

  21. alexy says:

    Although I am not personally familiar with the studies on nuclear war probability mentioned by the author, it would not surprise me that they assume a binomial distribution as is typically employed in most studies. However, just as there is no way to accurately estimate the annual probability of nuclear war, it is not unreasonable that the binomial distribution may not accurately describe the probability distribution underlying occurrence of nuclear war. It seems plausible that the Poisson distribution may be more accurate, for example.

    In contrast, the data and analysis behind climate change is much more robust, and therefore should be much more concerning.

  22. Mike says:

    (1) The most important step in reducing the risk of a nuclear war is to resolve the Kashmir conflict. The U.S. has never taken up this grave issue in a serious way. Harrell: do an article on this if you want to add something new to the discussion.

    (2) CO2 last hundreds of years in the atmosphere and tens of thousands of years in the oceans. The articles Harrell cites aren’t clear about how long the nuclear winter effects would last.

    (3) There is just no constructive reason for environmentalists to denigrate one risk over another. Climate change mitigation is more complex and will require bigger changes to our economic and political systems. As Obama said during his campaign we need to be able to work on more than one issue at a time.

  23. Mike says:

    One last point: climate change is happening. CO2 levels are rising. 100% chance.

  24. PeterW says:

    This idea that Climate Change is just another issue that the world has to deal seems to me to be the real reason why no action is taken. It’s lumped in with problems we know are bad but we’ve learned to live with like war, famine, childhood malnutrition, disease, etc.

    People need to realize that this freight train is coming right at us. This is not going to be a slight inconvenience or something that gnaws at our conscious. Eben this is going to hit us HARD!!!

  25. DavidCOG says:

    Eben Harrell:

    You appear to have completely ignored the arguments and evidence put forward by Joe, that climate change is here now and it’s going to wreak devastation on the entire planet if left unmitigated.

    Nuclear war is a very remote possibility. Devastating climate change is a certainty on our current path. We’ve already had tasters in Russia, Pakistan, Australia and elsewhere of what is to come.

    I just read the article about nuclear risk by Martin Hellman that you are referencing. It looks like bunk. He’s simply plucking numbers out of thin air and building his case on them. Using the same technique you could argue for any remote but devastating event to be our top priority.

    > I wish the … nuclear disarmament movement could count more environmentalists in its ranks.

    How many already are “in its ranks”? Do you have any data? Or are you just making assumptions? And what are you advocating that people do that hasn’t already been done with little or no success for the past ~60 years?

    Let’s try an analogy for you: Bob lives in England near a zoo that contains Tigers. He drinks a bottle of whiskey every day. If he wants to live a long life, should he invest more effort in guarding against Tiger attacks or quitting the sauce? You’re advocating that his most pressing concern is Tiger attacks. Note that he’ll be too drunk to do much to save himself if one does attack – and that neatly describes our reduced ability to cope with nuclear attack if we ignore climate change.

    Your arguments are not persuasive. Climate change should be the main – perhaps only – focus of all sane, informed people. You don’t need to be an “environmentalist” to think self-preservation is a good plan….

  26. Prokaryotes says:

    Climate change and nuclear threats have both nonlinear properties in common.

  27. Artful Dodger says:

    Nuclear risk assessments aside, the real threat today and for the future is that the Earth’s Energy Budget is out of balance. Currently by 0.9 watts per square meter, and increasing.

    Sounds trivial? Not when summed over the entire 510 trillion square meter surface area of the Earth. In fact, each second that goes by the Earth absorbs 459 Trillion Watts of excess heat (mostly by the oceans and ice-caps, for now).

    Unmoved by Sciencey explanations? Here’s a more visceral metaphor: the Earth’s energy imbalance is like the equivalent heat released by detonating a 1 Megaton weapon ever 9.1 seconds.

    But it doesn’t stop there. It goes on all-year, all-decade, all-century, all-millennium before natural processes can remove our excess Carbon emissions.

    Continuing to add more Carbon means Humanity will suffer more strife, and for longer, than if we weaned ourselves from fossil fuels now. A bomb every 8 seconds… 7…

    See now why we in the Environmental movement are more concerned by the present and future threat posed by continued unrestricted burning of fossil fuels? Like all systems on Earth, the Carbon cycle must be balanced to preserve a livable climate.

    I hope Eben Harrell will recognize the real threat, and change his priorities (and writing) to match.

  28. Richard Brenne says:

    davidgswanger (#15) – I’ve asked a lot of questions here and I’ve never had one so thoroughly answered! Thank you!

    As you know better than anyone, Jules Verne had some amazing predictions, especially his prediction in his 1865 comic novel “From the Earth to the Moon” that an aluminum projectile very close in size to the Apollo command module with three astronauts aboard would be shot (the propulsion coming from a giant gun, not self-contained rocket) from Florida (nearest the equator in the U.S. which takes maximum advantage of Earth’s rotation for additional propulsion) and would land on the moon and return by splashing down in the ocean to be retrieved by Navy ships, all things the Apollo dudes realized as their game plan a century and four years later, and all at a cost within 20 per cent of the 12.1 billion dollars (adjusted to 1969 dollars) Verne estimated.

    This would of course be impossible to quantify, but I’ll venture a guess about what percentage of the world’s population “got” that humans could someday bring about the destruction of civilization as we know it, killing most to all of us. My guess is that beginning in 1862 through about 1900 that was far less than 1 per cent of the global population. (It’s also fascinating that Verne was the first we know of to imagine this, from the explosion of a giant boiler, when in fact much of the reason will likely come not from the explosion but instead merely the intended use of boilers burning gas, oil and especially coal. Similarly instead of a mad scientist, among the primary culprits will be equally mad businessmen like the Kochs selling fossil fuels and related products, as well as lies about their dangers.)

    With the development of dreadnaughts (not dreadlocks, which so far have generally been less dangerous) or battleships in the early 1900s it became evident that coastal cities could be bombed into ruins, so maybe less than 2 per cent extrapolated that we could bring about such destruction as even more destructive weapons appeared.

    World War I was so catastrophic and technologies like machines guns, artillery projectiles that could be fired up to 81 miles (leaving the infamous “Paris Gun” at a mile a second and soaring up to 25 miles above Earth), submarines, battleships and aircraft (as well as the influenza incubated in the trenches that was sent home with soldiers killing tens of millions, often also healthy young adults in 1919), probably something like up to 10 per cent realized we could bring about our own destruction.

    During and especially after World War II, that probably jumped to 20, then 30, then 40 per cent, I’m of course guessing.

    When nuclear weapons progressed so dramatically (outpacing even Moore’s Law at times) that 16 years after Hiroshima (in 1961) the Soviets tested the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba (Soviet scientists were certain they could’ve used the same design for a 100 megaton bomb, but calculated that no bomber of the time could outrun the bomb’s blast) that was the equivalent to well over 3000 Hiroshima bombs.

    The next year (1962) was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Robert McNamara in the epic documentary “Fog of War” said we had come “this close” to all-out nuclear war as he held his thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart.

    A year and three months later the movie “Dr. Strangelove” appeared with its Doomsday Machine, something that turns out to be accurate in terms of climate change, either nuclear winter or far more likely from burning fossil fuels, other human impacts and the many and more severe positive feedbacks they initiate.

    So at that time I’m guessing the vast majority of the world’s people with access to education and mass media realized bringing about our own destruction was possible, maybe as much as 80 per cent of the global population. Through the bizarre “logic” of most humans, probably the number who think that our destruction is possible has probably dropped to something like 50% from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when a full exchange between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. appeared possible (I wrote a very different nuclear holocaust comedy screenplay of my own in 1986 that my world-class agent shopped with enthusiasm but never sold).

    How many realize today that even more complete destruction (according to Jims Hansen, Lovelock and Kunstler, and some non-Jims as well) is possible from climate change and related human impacts? My guess is that we’re back to less than 1 per cent of the global population, the scientists, other experts, those who inform themselves the most and of course those who regularly come to this world-changing blog.

    We need that awareness to climb to above 80 per cent, in fact as close to 100 per cent as possible so that we can at least do all we can do to try to prevent this from happening.

    Since you’re an expert thinker in this area, David, I’d enjoy hearing how you’d adjust my guesses with your own, as well as those of anyone else. And thanks again for your great summary of the history of doom.

    Also thanks to Richard Pauli’s always great insights (#10) and Eben himself for his thoughtful initial essay and his thoughtful responses to Joe. Admitting where you may have been wrong is also impressive Eben and something I’m looking forward to seeing from a Republican any day now, when they produce another Lincoln (which apparently has a likelihood of 1/2 of 1 per cent of zero).

  29. Ted Gleichman says:

    One way to summarize complex issues responsibly can be to balance or dichotimize them.

    For example, I helped train Vista Volunteers during the War on Poverty, and our training-center director had us summarize the evaluation of each trainee according to risk and gain. Best was ‘low risk – high gain.’ Worst was ‘high risk – low gain.’

    In this case, nuclear winter is a low probability with catastrophic consequences. But rapidly-developing climate destruction is an established fact with catastrophic consequences.

    Thank you, Joe, for taking this polka-dot algae-bloom* apart logically and definitively. No way should we change focus!

    * Since almost all herring have been fished out, this is my absurd attempt to upgrade Mother Goose with a new metaphor for naturalistic impossibility.

    Of course, Joe and other Rommulans point out that encouraging rationality among nuclear decision-makers is a very good thing. We can be thankful that the few remaining foreign-policy rationalists among the Republican Senators joined Obama and the Democrats to approve the modest New START Treaty during the lame-duck Congressional session.

    Head-Vise Alert:
    I may be one of the few CP’ers who actually got to impact the use of nuclear weapons, grass-roots. In 1974, I was among the dozen or so on the steering committee of a Colorado ballot initiative that successfully scuttled the use of nuclear weapons to improve natural gas productivity in tight-rock formations. Four nuclear weapons were detonated for that: One at Rulison in 1969, and three, stacked vertically in a linked explosion, at Rio Blanco in 1973.

    The resulting gas production was highly radioactive, of course, and somehow we radical enviros weren’t comforted by the thought that blending the gas with other supplies would make the radiation “inconsequential by the time it gets to the burner in your kitchen.” (The Pollution Solution is Dilution — Not!)

    This program came out of desperation within the Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear-weapons industry to find an economically- and politically-productive use for the bombs (Edward Teller was one of the leaders). They publicly suggested as many 10,000 detonations ultimately under Colorado’s Western Slope.

    We kids weren’t convinced, so we put a measure on the Colorado ballot that prevented any further underground nuclear detonations in the state without an explicit prior vote of the state.

    We won solidly, but the fact of the matter is that we probably only won because the energy industry was split on the issue: the oil shale* people didn’t want the nukes messing up their plans.

    * Oil shale: Satan’s second-favorite fossil fuel (after tar sands). What the Ute peoples called “the rock that burns” has a carbon cost makes Saudi sweet crude look like a sweet deal. Stopping oil shale will be one of the biggest and most important US Peak Oil battles.

    Double Head-Vise Alert:
    This was during the era when AEC-types were suggesting using nuclear explosions to blast a sea-level replacement for the Panama Canal across Nicaragua — notwithstanding the dozen-foot sea level disparity between the Atlantic and Pacific in that neighborhood. Thank the gods, those days are behind us.

    So if someone wants to bring more nukes to your community, just say no.

    In the meantime, let’s keep on keeping on, organizing our communities to mitigate (and adapt to) climate destruction!

  30. Andy Hultgren says:

    Artful Dodger #27,

    That 1 Megaton weapon every 9.1 seconds comparison is a fantastic one. That is *exactly* the kind of word picture that communicates to people wholely unfamaliar with the topic of climate change. Thank you!

  31. dp says:

    i wonder why conservationists didn’t flex their defense policy muscle against strategic weapons before. rachel carson, you cheated me of an innocent childhood.

  32. Celia Schorr says:

    Robert – (#17): This article just ran a couple of days ago on Green blog, NYT: “On Our Radar: ‘Small’ Nuclear War Would Cool Globe, Scientists Say”


  33. Mike says:

    Above I stated: “CO2 last hundreds of years in the atmosphere and tens of thousands of years in the oceans. The articles Harrell cites aren’t clear about how long the nuclear winter effects would last.”

    Following Celia’s link I found this: “Even after seven years, global average precipitation would be 5 percent lower than it was before the conflict, according to the model.”


    We are all against nuclear war for many many reasons and we should not loss sight of that even as we focus on the major long term threat of climate change.

  34. Prokaryotes says:

    Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming for Years

    Regional war could spark “unprecedented climate change,” experts predict.
    National Geographic News

    Published February 22, 2011