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100 nuclear explosions—a billion people starve to death

April 24, 2012
Ira Helfand

Ira Helfand: "The danger identified in this report requires a fundamental change in our thinking about nuclear weapons. We must now recognize that it is not just the arsenals of the nuclear super powers that threaten all humanity."

A new IPPNW/PSR study released today at the annual Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago offers compelling scientific evidence that most of the nuclear arsenals in the world —whether large or small—threaten everyone on Earth. The consequences for global agriculture of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, for example, would be so severe and long lasting that we must now fundamentally change our thinking about nuclear weapons and redouble our efforts to eliminate them, according to the study’s author, Ira Helfand.

Dr. Helfand has been working in close consultation with climate scientists Alan Robock, O. B. Toon, and others since 2007, when their research into the global climate effects of a nuclear war using only 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons was featured at an IPPNW conference held in London with the Royal Society of Medicine.

Robock, Toon, and their colleagues—many of whom had worked together with Carl Sagan on the “nuclear winter” studies produced during the Cold War—had come to the startling and largely unexpected conclusion that even a fraction of the nuclear weapons contained in the bloated US and Russian arsenals could disrupt the global climate so severely that the world’s major agricultural centers would sustain unprecedented damage for at least a decade.

Based on existing data about global food reserves, the nutritional status of impoverished populations, and historical evidence about the relationship between volcano-induced climate change and past famines, Dr. Helfand came to a tentative conclusion that a famine caused by the climate effects of a nuclear war on this scale could leave a billion people or more without sufficient food to survive.

What the climate studies did not spell out were the likely percentage declines in specific crops, such as corn and rice, in specific agricultural regions, along with the effects on food availability and prices and the resultant nutritional impact on at-risk populations. A grant from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled Dr. Helfand to organize a research project that could start to produce some concrete and reliable data with which to address these questions.

Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk—Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition, released today with IPPNW’s US affiliate Physicians for Social Responsibility, outlines research findings soon to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change.

Nuclear famine Fig. 6From the executive summary:

  • In the US, corn production would decline by an average of 10% for an entire decade, with the most severe decline (20%) in year 5. For soybeans, the decline in production would be about 7%, with the most severe loss, more than 20%, in year 5.
  • …During the first 4 years, rice production [in China] would decline by an average of 21%; over the next 6 years the decline would average 10%.
  • The decline in available food would be exacerbated by increases in food prices which would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest. Even if agricultural markets continued to function normally, 215 million peopl would be added to the rolls of the malnourished over the course of a decade.
  • …The 925 million people in the world who are chronically malnourished have a baseline consumption of 1,750 calories or less per day. Even a 10% decline in their food consumption would put this entire group at risk.
  • …The number of people threatened by nuclear-war induced famine would be well over one billion.

Dr. Helfand says that while more research remains to be done if we’re to have a comprehensive data set about the agricultural and nutritional consequences of nuclear wars, regardless of size, there is only one policy conclusion to be drawn from these new findings.

“The death of one billion people over a decade would be a disaster unprecedented in human history,” he said. “It would not cause the extinction of the human race, but it would bring an end to modern civilization as we know it.

“The danger identified in this report requires a fundamental change in our thinking about nuclear weapons. We must now recognize that it is not just the arsenals of the nuclear super powers that threaten all humanity.  Even the smaller arsenals of emerging nuclear powers like India and Pakistan pose a global threat.”

Nevertheless, as a US doctor with a clinical practice in Massachusetts, Dr, Helfand recognizes the potential for destruction in the American arsenal:

“A single US Trident submarine has the ability to destroy 100 cities and create the global famine described in this paper. We have 14 of them, as part of a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons that are also based on surface ships, land-based missiles, and long-range bombers.

“Even the most ambitious current proposals for nuclear arms reductions would leave the US and Russia with many times the nuclear fire power needed to create a global disaster on the scale described in this study.”

Mikhail Gorbachev agrees. The former Soviet president and founding chairman of Green Cross International, upon reading an advance copy of the report, told Dr. Helfand he is convinced that “nuclear weapons must be abolished. Their use in a military conflict is unthinkable; using them to achieve political objectives is immoral. Over twenty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan and I ended our summit meeting in Geneva with a joint statement that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,’ and this new study underscores in stunning and disturbing detail why this is the case and why we must discard Cold War-style plans for the possible use of these weapons and move rapidly to eliminating them from the world’s arsenals.”

There are nine current heads of state who need to embrace that same conviction.

Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk—Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition. (PDF 1MB)

One Comment
  1. August 21, 2012 7:49 pm

    The British Government is trying to claim that it has gone a long way toward ‘nuclear minimisation’ by reducing its nuclear arsenal. Yet its current Trident system – even if down to three ships – would, if used, amount to destruction of the same order of magnitude, if not more, than that identified by Ira Helfand and colleagues: and step by step the UK Government is planning to replace the Trident system, at a cost variably estimated as between 20 and 90 billion pounds, over the next 20 years or so. It refuses to acknowledge the case for a nuclear weapons convention even though officials have stated ‘off the record’ that such a NWC may ultimately be needed – but for ‘diplomatic’ reasons it refuses to use the word ‘Convention’ in this context. Even more international pressure is needed for the British to respond: ICAN and ICAN-UK are doing their best and I look to the Hiroshima Congress to help re-inforce this message.

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