Nuclear famine comes to Oslo
As the second session of the conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons opened, the co-chair, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the Director General of the South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation, noted the findings of climate scientists such as Alan Robock, who is here with us, and of IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand, to the effect that even a limited nuclear war would cause global climate disruption and an agricultural crisis that would have catastrophic consequences for her own continent of Africa. Her remarks could have come right out of IPPNW’s report Nuclear Famine. This was exactly the right way to frame a session on the long term consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
Neil Buhne, the Director of the Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery of the UN Development Programme went on the describe the climate effects of regional nuclear war in some detail. One of the climate scientists who produced those findings, Alan Robock, sat right in front of me smiling broadly as the work of several years finally got the attention it deserves in an international forum.
Up to this point in the conference, everything that’s been presented, while extremely important, has essentially been known for decades. This recent scientific research, however, introduces something very new to our knowledge about nuclear weapons consequences. They tell us that even a fraction of the nuclear arsenals now in existence, even if they are used in a relatively contained area, would cause massive and calculable (NOT incalculable) damage to the world’s climate and agricultural production, over a decade or more. That’s a synergistic effect of nuclear detonations far more serious than even some multiple number of Hiroshimas and Nagasakis. That information is now in front of the 132 States attending this conference, and has the weight of this conference behind it.
Peter Scott-Bowden, Senior Emergency Advisor at the UN World Food Programme went deeper into his agency’s responsibilities and capabilities to respond in the event of large-scale disasters. This, to my mind, was the first disconnect with the realities being addressed in Oslo. Mr. Scott-Bowden talked about the resilience of people in the aftermath of disasters, and the technical and human systems that need to be put in place to assist survivors, and the likelihood that these would have to be ramped up considerably. He also acknowledged the qualitative difference in the situation on the ground after a nuclear detonation, as it had been described by previous expert speakers. Yet he concluded from all of this that there was a need to prepare better and more effectively, rather than face the fact that little or nothing could really be done to mitigate the damage and suffering after the fact, and the prevention was the only option. For example, he talked about helping people put small businesses back together.
The next speaker, IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand, put the conference right back on its trajectory by giving one of his best and most powerful presentation’s on the global climate and health effects of nuclear war. But he took the room by surprise when he broke out of lecture mode and asked permission to address to delegates as a practicing physician.
“If you were my patients,” he said, “I would tell you how sorry I was that I had given you such difficult information, and that I understood your response upon leaving the room would be to try to forget, because this is so hard to think about. Please don’t do that. Please think about what you have learned here, bring the information home to your governments, and urge them to act on what they know.”