Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Huffington Post has suggested that a full scale nuclear war, and the climatic aftermath, not only might do more damage that anthropogenic global warming, but it might actually be more likely.
Climate Change for the Impatient: A Nuclear Mini Ice Age
Everyone has heard about climate change caused by fossil fuels, which threatens to raise Earth’s average surface temperature by about 3-5°C by the year 2100 unless we take major steps toward mitigation. But there’s an eerie silence about the other major climate change threat, which might lower Earth’s average surface temperature by 7°C: a decade-long mini ice age caused by a U.S.-Russia nuclear war.
This is colder than the 5°C cooling we endured 20,000 years ago during the last ice age. The good news is that, according to state-of-the-art climate models by Alan Robock at Rutgers University, a nuclear mini ice age would be rather brief, with about half of the cooling gone after a decade. The bad news is that this more than long enough for most people on Earth to starve to death if farming collapses. Robock’s all-out-war scenario shows cooling by about 20°C (36°F) in much of the core farming regions of the U.S., Europe, Russia and China (by 35°C in parts of Russia) for the first two summers — you don’t need to be a master farmer to figure out what freezing summers would do to food supply. It’s hard to predict exactly how devastating this famine would be if thousands of Earth’s largest cities were reduced to rubble and global infrastructure collapsed, but whatever small fraction of all humans don’t succumb to starvation, hypothermia or epidemics would need to cope with roving, armed gangs desperate for food.
Unless we take stronger action than there’s current political will for, we’re likely to face both dramatic fossil-fuel climate change and dramatic nuclear climate change within a century, give or take. Since no politician in their right mind would launch global nuclear Armageddon on purpose, the nuclear war triggering the mini ice age will most likely start by accident or miscalculation. This has has almost happened many times in the past, as this timeline shows. The annual probability of accidental nuclear war is poorly known, but it certainly isn’t zero: John F. Kennedy estimated the probability of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating to war between 33 percent and 50 percent. We know that near-misses keep occurring regularly, and there are probably many more close calls than haven’t been declassified. Simple math shows that even if the annual risk of global nuclear war is as low as 1 percent, we’ll probably have one within a century and almost certainly within a few hundred years. We just don’t know exactly when — it could be the day your great granddaughter gets married, or it could be next Tuesday when the Russian early-warning system suffers an unfortunate technical malfunction.
Some of the near misses are truly terrifying. For example, the 1983 Soviet Nuclear False Alarm, when the world was saved because one Soviet officer stood by his judgement that the inbound ICBMs detected by their early warning systems were a software glitch;
Shortly after midnight, the bunker’s computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to a few minutes.
It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any U.S. first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start. In addition, the launch detection system was new and in his view not yet wholly trustworthy, while ground radar had failed to pick up corroborative evidence even after several minutes of the false alarm.
The risk of nuclear war has largely faded from public consciousness, but given the number of unstable states jumping onto the nuclear bandwagon, the risk of a major nuclear exchange might actually be higher now, than during the classic cold war years.
Even if the nuclear threat is never realised, there are plenty of other threats likely to emerge in the near future, as our species explores the possibilities of nanotech, biotech and artificial intelligence.
The one silver lining of these rapid and accelerating changes to the global threat landscape, is that the idea that anthropogenic climate change is the worst threat we face is becoming increasingly untenable. Even the Huffington Post is starting to question this assertion.