What if nuclear war no longer resulted in nuclear winter?

Can nuclear weapons be justified if arsenals are kept small enough to prevent the threat of nuclear winter if used?

Nuclear winter occurs when smoke from fires set by nuclear bombs rises to the upper atmosphere. (Photo: Josh Thoresen / Flickr Commons)

Nuclear winter occurs when smoke from fires set by nuclear bombs rises to the upper atmosphere. (Photo: Josh Thoresen / Flickr Commons)

Nuclear war, like a nuclear warhead, is actually multiple threats in one. Of the three greatest, the first is instantaneous — death and destruction from the blast — the second two, time-released: radiation and, later, nuclear winter.

Nuclear winter, as you may know, occurs when smoke from fire set off by nuclear detonations (especially in cities, with their concentration of flammable material) rises to the upper atmosphere. The result, as American and Russian scientists learned in the early eighties, was that the atmosphere would heat up and the earth would cool. More specifically, the smoke burns nitrogen causing ozone depletion, which, even worse than causing skin cancer, interferes with photosynthesis, thus drastically lowers crop yields. Millions will starve (just another way that nuclear weapons give new meaning to the phrase “adding insult to injury”) — not to mention all those who may to a depression induced by the cold and the perpetual dirty gray clouds looming over them.

Some of the above information can be found in an article in the April 2015 issue of Contemporary Security Policy by Seth D. Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, titled Winter-safe Deterrence: The risk of nuclear winter and its challenge to deterrence. Introducing his, uhh, unusual thesis, Baum writes:

This paper evaluates prospects for winter-safe deterrence, defined here as a military force capable of meeting the deterrence goals of today’s nuclear weapon states without risking catastrophic nuclear winter.

If you’re anything like me, your first thought is: wouldn’t simply abolishing nuclear weapons eliminate the risk of nuclear winter? Baum explains.

Nuclear weapon states claim that the security conditions conducive to further disarmament do not yet exist and can only be realized through a gradual, step-by-step process. Meanwhile, the entire world—including nuclear weapon states—is at risk. The paper therefore asks if there is another way that these states can achieve their deterrence goals without risking nuclear winter or any other comparably severe global catastrophe.

Your next question may be: Is Baum trying to make one of the widest end runs around nuclear abolition in arms control history in hopes of eventually achieving disarmament? Or is he trying to give nuclear-weapon states their cake — significant arms control — and letting them eat it, too — an environmental go-ahead, should deterrence fail, to wage limited nuclear war?

More on Baum’s plan.

A limit of 50 total nuclear weapons worldwide is proposed. With only 50 total nuclear weapons, a severe nuclear winter catastrophe is very unlikely to occur, though some harmful nuclear winter effects could still occur.

Good luck convincing the five states that possess nuclear weapons under the aegis of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and four that haven’t signed it to divvy the 50 up among themselves. If Baum had done the math (simple arithmetic, actually), he would see those numbers are so close to global zero that if you’re going to the trouble of reducing the number of nuclear weapons to that great an extent just to eliminate nuclear winter, why not go all the way? As early nuclear-winter researcher Carl Sagan wrote, “The threshold for what Richard Turco has called The Nuclear Winter is very low.” (Turco was a colleague of Sagan.) Nevertheless, Baum writes:

If feasible, this would be a win-win situation: Nuclear weapon states win because they continue to achieve their security goals, and all countries—including nuclear weapon states—win because they are no longer threatened by nuclear winter.

Baum is forgetting one little detail: It would be a lose-lose-lose situation for all those who die in the inferno of a “winter-free” war from the effects of the blast, and the secondary effect before nuclear winter, radiation. Does Baum even seek disarmament or does he, in fact, believe in nuclear deterrence, however limited? A column of his in support of the Austria Pledge for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for which he writes a regular column, suggests the former, however hedgily. He wrote about a pledge made by the Austrian government as the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons drew to a close calling on other states to commit to reducing the risks of nuclear weapons.

There is little downside to the Austria pledge, despite the protests of nuclear weapons states. … the most important factor is its capacity to build momentum for disarmament and related issues.

But, in his Contemporary Security Policy article, Baum states that “it is important to recognize that the nuclear weapon states have reasons for their continued possession of nuclear weapons. While there can be many reasons for having nuclear weapons, perhaps the most important is deterrence [which] remains central to nuclear weapons states’ security policies. … Asking nuclear weapon states to rapidly and completely disarm is asking them to give up their nuclear deterrence doctrines, which they are reluctant to do. To be sure, there are arguments against the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. … And perhaps these arguments will succeed. But meanwhile, the security goals of nuclear weapon states must be acknowledged.”

No: They don’t. But whatever benefit of the doubt one may be inclined to give Baum’s intentions, the following statements are downright disturbing.

The 50 weapon limit potentially could be increased pending results of future research aimed at reducing the uncertainty surrounding the human impacts of nuclear winter

And …

A cautious approach in which uncertainty gradually shrinks suggests a small initial arsenal that could gradually increase as research eliminates the possibility of certain worst case scenarios. In other words, the world maintains low limits on nuclear arsenals until it learns that higher limits are winter-safe.

And …

Another important point is that, as long as deterrence succeeds in avoiding conflict, nuclear winter is irrelevant, and large nuclear arsenals can be kept.

What’s the point of that point, and why make it not once but three times? Does Baum hope to garner more support from policymakers by making the arsenal limitations he prescribes temporary? Whatever the case, it makes it difficult to accept his comments about the Austrian pledge in good faith.

When the reader is unable to divine the true motives of an individual who advocates policy, especially one that approaches a problem from a new angle (however errant), his or her message is undermined. One could attempt to make the case that the legitimacy of Baum’s argument would have benefited if he had left out the return-to-larger arsenals carrot. But his whole argument is so specious that, in truth, it wouldn’t matter.

To repeat, Baum is preoccupied with the effects of nuclear winter to the degree that he omits the immediate death and destruction of nuclear war, as well as that incurred by radiation. His attempt to cast his proposal in a moral light also falls flat.

Nuclear weapon states should pursue winter-safe deterrence both because it helps (or at least does not significantly hurt) their national security and because it is morally the right thing to do. This is ethics with strategy: By pursuing policies that nuclear weapons states find desirable, the policies are more likely to be implemented. [Emphasis added.]

In fact, “winter-safe deterrence” is just another initiative that enables nuclear weapons to exist into perpetuity (or until the money runs out). Also, it’s just another example of the kind of contorted reasoning that the continuing existence of nuclear weapons on the planet seems to encourage.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

2 replies »

  1. Well, of course nuclear weapons are going to exist into perpetuity and continue to proliferate. Technology to kill people is a ratchet, it only turns one way. Lucky for us, unlike poison gas, nuclear technology is relatively complex and not that easy to disseminate. So the nuclear club only adds about one member per decade. Still, sooner or later it’s hard to believe there won’t be a use of nuclear weapons. (Probably lucky one hasnt occured already after the breakdown of the FSU.)

    But, Russ, what do you think of the argument that nuclear deterrence has worked? I heard that although the number of conflicts is certainly huge these days, their size is small, and over the last seventy five years wars have claimed a smaller proportion of deaths than ever before in history. Now this could be a Faux News stat, as in shit-we-just-made-up, but what say you?