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Nuclear famine: Interview with Ira Helfand

April 6, 2011

Ira Helfand, an emergency physician from Northampton, Massachusetts, has been writing and speaking about the medical consequences of nuclear war on behalf of IPPNW and its US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, since the 1980s. For the past three years, he has been working with climate scientists Alan Robock, O. B. Toon, and others to help document the health and environmental disaster that would ensue from a range of possible nuclear wars.

We asked Ira to describe the work on which he is now engaged and to reflect on his career of nuclear abolition activism.

What is climate science telling us about the nature of nuclear weapons that we didn’t already know, and why is it important for people to understand what these findings reveal about the consequences of regional nuclear war?

The recent investigations into the climate effects of nuclear explosions provide two extremely important lessons. First, we’ve always known at some level that a nuclear war between the US and Russia would be a catastrophe. But Professors Robock and Toon and their colleagues but have shown that a war with those massive arsenals would be a civilization-ending disaster. Their recent work has vindicated the “nuclear winter” studies of the 1980s, and has shown that the effects would be even worse than predicted and would last longer.

Rapid global temperature drops averaging 8 degrees centigrade would last for 10 years. The cooling in the critical agricultural areas in the interior regions of North America and Eurasia would be even more extreme — perhaps -25 degrees. Temperature drops of this scale would make the Earth as cold as it was during the last ice age. There is no doubt that a climate disruption of this magnitude would not be compatible with human civilization. Agriculture would stop and the vast majority human beings would starve to death.

This has immense implications, since it means that the US and Russia are threatening not just themselves but everyone currently living on Earth, and all of their children and descendants.

The second lesson, which is the relatively new and unexpected part, is that even a more limited nuclear war — for example, one between India and Pakistan using just 100 warheads — would create significant worldwide climate disruption. The effects would not be as intense, but there would still be significant disruption: a sudden global cooling; a dangerous loss of protective atmospheric ozone; and decreases in precipitation. While the net effect would not be the total collapse of agriculture, we would see an unprecedented drop in crop production in the world’s most crucial farm belts.

You’ve been trying to fill in a missing piece of the research for a couple of years now, and are finally able to do so because of a grant from the Swiss government. What’s the project about and why is it important?

Up until now, we’ve only been able to speculate about the large decline in agricultural production, mainly by extrapolating from the historical record of droughts and earlier climate events that have disrupted food production and distribution. No one has done focused research to calculate actual declines in agricultural output for specific crops as an outcome of nuclear-war-induced climate effects. What we’re doing now is examining just that question so that we can get some hard numbers. Two groups are working independently to determine how great a decline in agricultural production would result from a regional nuclear war in South Asia.

At the conclusion of this study, we expect that the implications will be that much more concrete and harder to ignore by world leaders who continue to act as though their nuclear policies do not place the entire world in real jeopardy. This is an unacceptable public health threat to which world leaders do not pay enough attention. We also want this information to reach a very broad public audience, especially in democracies where the people have the ultimate responsibility for the policies of their governments.

Once we have reliable scientific estimates, we’ll use the data to generate equally reliable conclusions about the consequences to public health and nutrition, and more rigorous projections of the numbers of people who would be harmed. We want to have much more certainty about this, because our “back of the envelope” estimates are that a billion people could die from a nuclear famine caused by no more than 100 Hiroshima-size bombs.

Do governments and policy makers take this science seriously, or is it outweighed by political considerations?

If people made their decisions based on the science, nuclear weapons would have been gone long ago and we also would have changed our energy policies. Other issues intrude. But the piece that we as physicians can contribute is the science. Part of our task has been to figure out how to get our message out as broadly as possible. The fact that the Swiss government is supporting this new study is a very positive development. In fact, a growing number of countries, including Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and others are making efforts to raise the profile of the nuclear issue throughout the international community, which is an enormously important development.

You’ve been at this work — educating the public and policy makers about the effects of nuclear weapons and the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear war — ever since the 1980s. What motivates you to keep at it?

Two things: a belief that we can succeed in saving the human race — not that I’m sure we will succeed, but that it’s a real possibility. The other is just a sense of moral imperative. Knowing the danger, I find it impossible not to work on this issue.

How would you assess the progress we’ve made since the end of the Cold War? Are we closer to ending the nuclear threat than we were 10 or 20 years ago?

Looking back historically, IPPNW and its affiliates played an enormous role during the Cold War. Gorbachev says quite explicitly in his memoirs that physicians changed his mind about nuclear weapons. This shows that physicians and other activists can have an effect.

There was a period of time in the 1990s when it was hard to make progress; people just didn’t want to hear about nuclear weapons, and conveniently assumed that the problem went away with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and built their own arsenals; North Korea has done the same; we have gone through a terrible and costly invasion and occupation of Iraq based on groundless claims that it had weapons of mass destruction; and many people worry about the prospects of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear weapon.  The issue may not get the level of attention it received in the 1980s, but it is definitely back on the public’s mind.

We also have, in the person of Barack Obama, a leader who says he’s committed to eliminating nuclear weapons. While we haven’t seen as much progress as we’d hoped for after those early speeches, we do have the goal of a world without nuclear weapons on the record. President Obama himself, as we’ve learned from his early writing, was influenced by the work of physicians and scientists.

So yes, we have made progress and are poised to make more. Recent events in the Middle East remind us that historical change, which seems difficult to bring about, can unfold quickly.

In both good and bad directions, right?

People tend to act as though nuclear war can’t happen; yet we’ve come very close on at least five occasions since 1979 that we know about. We need to inform people about the precariousness of our situation — how bad a nuclear war would be and how possible it is.

Is fear or hope the more powerful message?

The fear and hope messages are both essential. There’s a kernel of truth in the idea that you shouldn’t make people too afraid to act. But fear is an important determinant of human behavior, and where the danger is this imminent there is good reason to be afraid. But there is also hope that we can prevent this catastrophe, so we need to emphasize both and strike the right balance.

What do you think it’s going to take to finally abolish nuclear weapons and to ensure that humanity will survive its own most destructive invention?

We’ll need the leadership of at least one government leader to move the situation forward — a visionary figure to play the role Gorbachev played in the 1980s, to put abolition on the global agenda and really work for it. If such an initiative were to be taken up seriously by President Obama, things would move very quickly, despite the opposition. If either the US or Russia made this their top priority, other nuclear-weapon states would fall into place. Whatever pressure can be brought to bear on these leaders is to the good, whether from within the US and Russia or pressure from other governments. Our best strategy would be to generate such pressure from every possible direction.

One Comment
  1. November 3, 2011 3:31 pm

    After reading this book Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA [I will be regurgitating much of it], I find it fascinating just how much of the nuclear weapons issue, i.e. how we arrived at the present state of affairs, is bound up with the history of the CIA. An agency that for most of its span has pursued a reckless, often unfruitful course (esp. in terms of “blowback”) of covert action, while doing little in the way of actual intelligence-gathering.

    The author shows how pretty much up until the advent of the U-2 (and even after) we had no accurate assessments of the Soviet Union, what they had, what their capabilities were, the size of their nuclear arsenal, etc. That Eisenhower had hinged his whole national security strategy on nuclear weapons and covert action, which Kennedy then took up eagerly, and without a functioning intelligence agency we essentially overestimated our adversary. . . and now what to do with all these nukes?

    At times also we underestimated: Just a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA was reporting that the “establishment on Cuban soil of Soviet nuclear striking forces which could be used against the US would be incompatible with Soviet policy”. Meanwhile, sites which had been under construction for months appeared suddenly on reconnaissance photographs: U-2 flyovers had been banned intermittently for the sake of political expediency and appearances – worry over what a potential shoot-down incident could do to US-Soviet relations.

    So I find the intrusion of political considerations especially salient. The fact that, when Kennedy agreed to remove our obsolete missile sites in Turkey in Italy in return for withdrawal of nukes from Cuba, they did not want it made public, thinking only of their credibility at home. And it’s a shame that the issue of nuclear war has fallen off the map so much since the late 70s/early 80s, apart from the occasional speculation about the location of unaccounted-for materials in the aftermath of the collapse of 1991, the possibility of terrorists acquiring a “dirty bomb”.

    As you note, if we had relied upon true intelligence – which is pure science, information, humanity might never have to deal with the existence of these weapons today. And this is why I respond with some sense of your “moral imperative”. In essence I just do not want to accept a world in which humanity aims so low, in which the policies of the USA for decades practically invite criticism and retribution. Ideas like the need for nuclear arms, the need for prohibitions/criminalization of some non-dangerous drugs, the notion that defense spending is more important than exploration of space, which seem so irrational and counter-intuitive but could so easily be changed with an adequate force of will from progressive-thinking elements of society.

    And yet, very recent developments have shown that classic protest-style movements are again viable. That change can happen fast. An opportunity for a nobler course on the most pressing issues facing mankind is in our destiny.

    Though there is that hope, I want to emphasize the differing types of power involved. The point is that the nuclear option has always been tied in with a defense/security establishment that operates extra-legally, in secret and with an unlimited budget. It is not accountable to the citizens of a democratic society, or even its elected members of Congress. How can we oppose a source of major power without being able to identify it? If as one country we think we can flaunt and abuse the artifice of the United Nations, what a precedent we are setting. At times our most maligned enemies– people like Gaddafi, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad, were often our most prescient critics of this double standard.

    It is lamentable that the real danger is not adequately stated, or is outright ignored. The incidents you mention where nuclear confrontations have been avoided. These are obscure facts to most people, but I am not beyond knowing about, for instance, Stanislav Petrov. I find it interesting that we have fewer of our own heroes in the realm of disarmament. We have seemed far less willing to take the initiative to avert thermonuclear disaster than other nations. Krushchev proved the more honest actor with integrity during the Crisis. We are afraid maybe, and somehow need these nukes to prop up our damaged sense of national credibility. . . Perhaps our leaders are just blind or allergic to truth–

    We not only weren’t sure about the USSR and its intentions, we had no idea, and very few to no sources inside its leadership. Meanwhile the CIA’s own operations were penetrated and compromised again and again, out of sheer ineptitude. How many bombers, tanks, missiles in the USSR; mostly guesstimates and a lot of them plainly fake intelligence or disinformation. A shameful history indeed, which would soon include domestic spying, something explicitly prohibited by its charter. . .

    The entire Cold War, and its gross inflation of the defense budget. . . debacles like Korea and Vietnam, all an unnecessary fluke or bluff– because from what I understand the leaders of the USSR never really intended to militarily threaten the United States, and in fact greatly feared such a confrontation, and had mostly abandoned their aspirations to world domination in favor of peaceful coexistence.

    I grant that valuable technology and human achievements have come out of this competition between nations. Among them the double-edged sword of nuclear power, spaceflight, and so on. But they are nothing if we cannot even live in harmony, with truth, and without the sacrifice of countless lives over pointless ideological disagreement.

    As an extreme side note, how intriguing are claims about UFOs being attracted to our nuclear weapons sites, the idea that extraterrestrials are concerned about our development as a species.

    Until such a time as our spiritual course and the failure of certain institutions can be corrected, this is absolutely important work.


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