Saving Money and Saving the World

As the United States struggles to deal with budget problems, as the U.S. Air Force deals with boredom, poor morale, drug use, and cheating on certification exams by their personnel entrusted with control of nuclear missiles, we have a solution that will save money as well as make the world a much safer place – get rid of most of our nuclear weapons immediately.  A recent New York Times editorial pointed out that it would cost $10,000,000,000 just to update one small portion of the U.S. arsenal, gravity bombs.  The U.S. government has no data on the overall cost of maintaining its nuclear arsenal, but various sources estimate the cost over the next decade between $150 billion and $640 billion, depending largely on which nuclear related tasks are included in the budget.

Nuclear weapons are useless.  They would never be used on purpose by the major powers, but could be used by accident.  Some countries might use them in a moment of panic, or in response to imagined threats and insults, or in a fit of religious hysteria.  The arsenals of nuclear weapons states set a bad example for the world, encouraging proliferation.  And they could kill us all.

The direct casualties from just three weapons of the size used on Hiroshima, exploding on U.S. cities, perhaps by North Korea or Iran in coming decades, would cause more casualties than the U.S. experienced in World War II.  Even worse, our recent work shows that a nuclear war between any two countries each using only 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, a modest fraction of what India and Pakistan now possess, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history.

Nuclear winter was discovered 30 years ago by American and Russian scientists, including us, working together.  We found that the stratospheric smoke originating from fires ignited by nuclear explosions in cities and industrial areas would be so dense that it would block out the Sun, making it cold, dark, and dry at Earth’s surface, killing plants and preventing agriculture for at least a year.  There would be winter conditions even in the summer.  And our recent work using modern computers and simulation models not only has validated the early work, but shows that the smoke would last for more than a decade.

The scary thing is that this could still happen today.  Even the reduced arsenals that will remain in 2017 after the New START treaty, about 4000 between the U.S. and Russia, threaten the world with nuclear winter.  The world as we know it could end any day as a result of an accidental nuclear war between the United States and Russia.  With temperatures plunging below freezing, crops would die and massive starvation could kill most of humanity.

It is immoral that these two countries threaten not just their own citizens, but also the entire world with their nuclear arsenals.  The world has now reduced the number of nuclear weapons to about 10,000.  An immediate U.S. and Russian reduction to levels in line with the other seven nuclear states (100 to 200 weapons) would maintain their appearance of a deterrent yet prevent an accident or misunderstanding threatening the end of the world.

The discussion of nuclear winter helped end the nuclear arms race between The U.S. and the Soviet Union 30 years ago.  In a February 12, 1985 interview in the New York Times President Ronald Reagan said, “A great many reputable scientists are telling us that such a war could just end up in no victory for anyone because we would wipe out the earth as we know it. And if you think back to … natural calamities – back in the last century, in the 1800’s, … volcanoes – we saw the weather so changed that there was snow in July in many temperate countries.  And they called it the year in which there was no summer.  Now if one volcano can do that, what are we talking about with the whole nuclear exchange, the nuclear winter that scientists have been talking about?  It’s possible ….”  In a 2000 interview with Mark Hertsgaard, Mikhail Gorbachev explained, “Models made by Russian and American scientists showed that a nuclear war would result in a nuclear winter that would be extremely destructive to all life on Earth; the knowledge of that was a great stimulus to us, to people of honor and morality, to act in that situation.”  Now it is time once again to learn from scientific study of the dangers we present to ourselves, and rapidly act to remove that danger.  We have the means to remove this threat, but we have to realize that nuclear weapons are not just bigger bombs – they can produce an environmental disaster.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the United States.  Hawks in the U.S. government advocated an attack on the nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba by the Soviet Union, but President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to work out a deal involving the U.S. removing missiles from Turkey if the Soviet Union would remove theirs from Cuba.  It was not only a horrific nuclear war that was averted, but also a global climate catastrophe that could have resulted in starvation of most of humanity.  There have been many other incidents where luck and last minute actions prevented the start of using nuclear weapons.  The only way to be sure we do not annihilate the human population is to destroy the weapons.

Clearly, the U.S. and Russia must demonstrate leadership on these issues, for the good of the planet and to set an example for other current and potential nuclear states.  The only way to avoid a global climatic catastrophe would be to reduce each arsenal well below new START levels.  What level of devastation constitutes effective deterrence – one city destroyed?  Ten?  One answer is clear: there are too many nuclear weapons in the world, by as much as a factor of 1000, for anyone, anywhere in the world to be safe from their potential effects.

Our latest work, using calculations of how crops grow under different weather conditions, shows that a billion people could be at risk of starvation from just the cooling from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.  Upon learning of these results, Nobel Peace Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev said, “I am convinced that nuclear weapons must be abolished.  Their use in a military conflict is unthinkable; using them to achieve political objectives is immoral.  Over 25 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.”

The U.S. government policy is to work for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, but with no specific timetable. As President Obama said in Prague four years ago, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. … In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.  More nations have acquired these weapons. … As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.  So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The time is now to quickly reduce our nuclear arsenals.  Their costs are enormous to any nation building them.  They cannot be used, and their continued existence makes the world a much more dangerous place.


Alan Robock is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Owen Brian Toon is a Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

9 thoughts on “Saving Money and Saving the World

  1. Wow – well that was certainly entertaining to read. It is sad it is all built on an overly simple opinion rather than even an attempt at fact but it at least gave me a Monday morning laugh.

    You state: “Nuclear weapons are useless” – that is quite a bold statement to make without any backup or analysis as to what caused you to make it. It is actually nothing more than an opinion – and a rather naïve one at that. The easiest counter example to this is the lack of great power war since 1945. If you don’t believe nuclear weapons contributed to this time of major power stability – what do you believe did? I once heard a speaker from the state department explain that the reason there are so few tanks and soldiers in Europe today is because of the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty – which makes total sense if you are willing to ignore minor geopolitical developments like collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

    You state: “They would never be used on purpose by the major powers” This is demonstrably false – nuclear weapons continue to play an increasing role in Russian secret especially and – to a lesser extent – to the Chinese. Russia is modernizing its entire nuclear Triad and is regularly carryout exercises with conventional forces that include the use of tactical nuclear weapons as de-escalating demonstration strikes. China is also expanding its nuclear forces and is seeking for the first time to deploy a sea-launched ballistic missile capability.

    Your fears of a nuclear winter may or may not be real. It depends a lot on the assumptions in how much dirt/dust/debris would be stirred up by the blast which depends a lot on the height of burst, the yield of the device, weather patterns at the time of detonation/firestorm, and the physical parameters of the target (i.e. building materials). But your belief that fewer weapons means a nuclear wars is less likely seems foolish. In my opinion the more nuclear states we have and the closer they are to parity the more likely a nuclear war is. As number of weapons and the yield of those weapons drops it becomes easier to imagine a theory of victory from a nuclear first strike – especially a highly accurate one. I like the idea of having so many nuclear weapons it makes the idea of “winning” a nuclear war an absolute joke. Having so few weapons that someone thinks they could actually “win” is utterly terrifying.

    As I said, thank you for your opinion. But I must say I find this entire post rather disappointing – I have come to expect better from this site and blog than such overly simplified and naïve opinions.

    1. “They would never be used on purpose by the major powers”. Didn’t USA already use nuclear weapons on Japan?

      Keith, your statement “Your fears of a nuclear winter may or may not be real. It depends a lot on the assumptions in how much dirt/dust/debris would be stirred up by the blast which depends a lot on the height of burst, the yield of the device, weather patterns at the time of detonation/firestorm, and the physical parameters of the target (i.e. building materials).” seems out of place, seeing that you are directing it to people who have actually made research about this, involving much more than, possibly, you did – your logic.

      They used computers and programs to actually understand the nature of nuclear winter more. They didn’t simply philosophize (of course, you may have done your research, I can’t know that).

      I simply found that completely out of place.

      “But your belief that fewer weapons means a nuclear wars is less likely seems foolish.”

      It doesn’t seem “foolish” if you think that, the more nuclear weapons there are, the harder it is to protect them all from getting into wrong hands, which then could cause a nuclear war. And as we know, it has been a great and increasing fear since the end of the Cold War. Saying it’s “foolish” seems rather harsh and subjective.

      But I do find your idea about “winning” with fewer nuclear weapons interesting and paradoxical.

  2. One more comment before I go: Not long ago there as a post on the science blog by Dr. Y about the overblown dangers of a nuclear winter. I tried to find it again so I could link to it in my above response but it seems to have disappeared – hopefully it wasn’t censored off of the site because of this post. I would hate to think the entire website is being taken over by thought police who care only about presenting “facts” that agree with what they already believe.

  3. Gentlemen:

    What an interesting post. Oh course, the devil is in the details. Your solution to a problem not adequately defined is; “get rid of most of our (US) nuclear weapons immediately”. Do you believe in nuclear deterrence, yes or no? (helps the reader define your conclusions) The United States today has approximately 5000 warheads in its nuclear arsenal. What is “most”? Do we set aside 1000 weapons, 4000? What nuclear delivery systems do we eliminate? No more Minuteman III ICBMs? Park the Trident submarines? Send the B-52s to the “boneyard”? Or, do we just “skinny down” the numbers and keep the “Triad” (that means land-based ICBMs, nuclear coded bombers, and the SLBM submarines if you’re not familiar with the term)

    I take by your post that you collectively believe that “some” nuclear weapons are necessary. How many? Deployed how? Or, do you have the conviction to say we need to save the planet and get rid of all nuclear weapons unilaterally and immediately? Now that would be bold policy!

    Without details your conclusions are just an academic pursuit. Interesting, but adding nothing of substance to the discussion. (Brutal, but fair).

    I share your conclusions on the devastating effect of nuclear warheads on our world if ever used. It would be Armageddon indeed. It can’t happen; we can’t let it happen. I believe the only way to prevent some kind of future nuclear exchange is through deterrence.

    What if I were to say to you, we can reduce the US nuclear arsenal to six (6) Trident submarines (and its future replacement) and only 1,200 nuclear warheads and maintain deterrence? Or, only the B-2 fleet (and its future replacement) and only 300 warheads? Is that something you could work with?

    Frank Shuler


  4. If we are to survive it is the US which must rise to it’s full m,oral and spiritual height and lead the world urgently to global disarmament. I sometimes wonder how we are still here, but our luck will run out sooner than later given the perfidity and stupidity of some in the human race

  5. Well! What silly comments! But this is what the author and everyone else who envisions a world without nuclear weapons is up against. We have been very lucky to avoid a nuclear war during the last few decades. The posters might wish to read Command and Control and Whole World on Fire to bring them up to date as to the results of nuclear firestorms and how close the Titan II missiles came to a spontaneous explosion in the past.

    1. I read command and control – it was great and showed how far we have come to improving the safety and security of our nuclear weapons. A world without nuclear weapons would be great – so would one without war, famine, illness or murder. I view all as being equally likely. As long as nuclear weapons exist I want the US to have the best arsenal of them – I trust us not to use them just because after all, the Russians and Chinese not so much.

      1. Keith,

        Could not agree more thank you for an accurate recounting of hisotry and a sober reminder of the importance of ‘credible’ deterrence.

        I personally don’t think we should have gone below START I levels as no nation, including the Russians and their weakengin financial position, could hope to match 1200 launchers and 4500 deployed warheads.

  6. Alex Cox

    You miss the point.

    The authors stated, “The time is now to quickly reduce our nuclear arsenals.” What are the details of their “plan”? How many nuclear weapons do we need to retain? Many? A few? How would those remaining nuclear weapons be deployed? Do we unilaterally disarm?

    Would the world be better off without nuclear weapons? Of course! Or, perhaps, only maybe. However, would eliminating all nuclear weapons guarantee the peace and security of the planet? Hardly. More people have been killed by a Kalashnikov than all the nuclear bombs in history.

    We all want a nuclear free world. Everybody. We just don’t know how to get there. We need an actionable vision, not platitudes.

    Today, one nation has the opportunity to lead in this discussion with acts and not words. Faced with the historical decision to replace Trident, the UK can unilaterally disarm by rejecting new submarines and ending London’s membership in the “nuclear club”. Want to rid the world of nuclear weapons, that’s a great place to start.

    Frank Shuler


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