Nobel Prize-winning professor discusses the prospect of nuclear war
Nuclear bombs may be the most destructive weapons ever invented, yet the greatest threat of nuclear war is not the sheer death toll of the immediate explosion but the environmental impact, argues Alan Robock, a distinguished professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences.
Robock contributed to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its work toward creating international legal prohibitions on the use and possession of nuclear weapons.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee released a statement that said, “Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against landmines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition. Through its work, ICAN has helped to fill this legal gap.”
Since its founding in 2007, ICAN has advocated for the total abolition of nuclear weapons by drawing attention to the humanitarian consequences of any use of a nuclear weapon.
Robock said his contribution to this effort has been in his use of modern climate models to demonstrate that the theory of nuclear winter was correct.
In the 1980s scientists from Russia and the United States both independently theorized the climatic effects of nuclear war. Because both groups of scientists had the same findings, it was clearly not propaganda, and so it influenced both nations to end the arms race, Robock said.
“It was a very powerful message at the time, and then people just sort of forgot about it because the arms race was over,” Robock said.
Yet among the nations with nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia still have the largest arsenals, with about 7,000 nuclear warheads each, according to ICAN's official website. The United States spends more money on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined. Of the other seven nuclear nations, France has the largest arsenal, with about 300 nuclear warheads.
“If there were a war between the United States and Russia using the arsenals we still have, it would produce nuclear winter,” Robock said. “Temperatures would go below freezing, it would kill all the crops and most people in the world would starve to death.”
Robock's predictions are based on calculations of how much smoke would be produced by a nuclear attack. If a modern city were attacked with even a single nuclear bomb, it would burn, sending thick smoke into the atmosphere. The effect would be so severe, Robock said, that temperatures around the world would drop so low that agriculture would become impossible — including in the country that launched the bomb. If multiple attacks occurred, temperatures around the world would drop below freezing.
“If you say, 'I'm using my nuclear weapons as a deterrent,' and threaten to use them, then (you are) acting as a suicide bomber,” Robock said. “I don't think it would make any sense for anybody to use nuclear weapons. But I'm thinking rationally.”
Historically, proponents of nuclear armament have argued that nuclear war prevents itself from happening by the mechanism of mutually assured destruction — all world leaders recognize, in theory, that a nuclear strike would be met with equal retaliation, so an actual nuclear attack is pragmatically untenable.
Robock's research highlights a different form of deterrence: self-assured destruction. When a leader knows that the climatic effects of a nuclear attack would reduce agriculture in his own country, a nuclear attack becomes, again, untenable.
Whereas the theory of self-assured destruction is supported by empirical data, mutually assured destruction has been debunked every time the possession of nuclear weapons failed to deter an attack, Robock said.
“Argentina attacked Britain in the Falkland Islands. Great Britain has nuclear weapons,” Robock said. “That didn't stop them. That didn't deter them. Israel was attacked during the Six-Day War and their nuclear weapons didn't deter any attacks. Look at the Vietnam War. Who won that war? Which country had nuclear weapons? Look at Afghanistan. They defeated both Russia and the United States, and our nuclear weapons didn't help us. And they certainly don't deter terrorists.”
The theory of mutually assured destruction assumes that the actors in the hypothetical scenario are behaving rationally. But, Robock said, a nuclear attack would create such confusion and panic that the conflict would escalate in unforeseeable ways.
“Once nuclear weapons are used, it would create an electromagnetic pulse which would disrupt communications,” Robock said. “Officers would panic, they wouldn't know what to do, so you can think of many scenarios where many more weapons would be used than originally designed. It's very hard to produce a limited nuclear war.”
Given the current political situation in North Korea, this potential for mass hysteria is the hidden danger of military conflict in the region.
“What if there's a U.S. missile going over China or Russia to attack North Korea? They might think it's just a ruse to attack them, and they respond,” Robock said. “Or some defense officer in some base in China or Russia thought it was an attack, and they launched a reprisal. That's why it's really dangerous to ever use them. It's really hard to stop a nuclear war once it's started.”