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Nuclear War and Climate Change: The Urgency for Action — The Center for Climate & Security

Christine Parthemore speaks on nuclear war and climate change at a COP26 side event hosted by the International Forum for Understanding, Nov 1, 2021. Source: International Forum for Understanding By Christine Parthemore I had the honor of delivering a keynote speech at a COP26 side event hosted by the International Forum for Understanding on November…

Nuclear War and Climate Change: The Urgency for Action — The Center for Climate & Security

EXPLORING THE SECURITY RISKS OF CLIMATE CHANGE   Nuclear War and Climate Change: The Urgency for Action By Christine Parthemore
–There is urgency in this Conference’s proceedings. The urgency is greater because the world’s leaders, to date, have not yet taken the climate crisis seriously enough. Not even close. Yet this echoes a shared challenge: across the most catastrophic risks facing humanity, whether climate change, biological risks, or the risk of nuclear war, we have historically underestimated these threats. 

Nuclear weapons  – shared history of underestimating effects

What happens when our policies and plans do not fully account for the damage they may cause to the world?

Just as we are witnessing the answers to this question unfolding regarding the climate crisis, there is a similar and in many ways shared history of underestimatingthe catastrophic effects that could come from nuclear weapons. 

During World War II, in the surge by the United States to ready nuclear weapons for potential use in the war, most estimates of damage focused on immediate blast effects of the use of these weapons — not secondary or enduring damage that may come after. And our knowledge of those effects was not robust. 

Those who created nuclear weapons largely seemed to believe that everyone within the area hit by these weapons would die from the nuclear blast itself — that everything would be obliterated quickly. That, it would be learned, was not necessarily the case. 

The first evidence came from the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The full human toll will never truly be known — estimates are between 110,000 and 210,000 people killed. 

Yet those who lost their lives directly from the attacks were just one aspect. The degree to which the use of atomic bombs in conflict caused serious, lasting, devastating injuries was underestimated. For those who were not immediately lost, thousands suffered ghastly burns, loss of skin, and shrapnel embedded in their bodies that caused excruciating pain for as long as they lived. This is in addition to extreme suffering beyond injuries and sickness, in years and in some cases lifetimes of economic hardship, social stigma, and psychological damage.

Under-estimating the damage of nuclear weapons contributed to the United States and Soviet Union producing astronomical numbers of them — tens of thousands — in part driven by the belief that they needed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in order to effectively deter one another from war—or to effectively wipe out the other nation.

Along with these growing nuclear arsenals came increasing nuclear tests. Soviet and U.S. citizens  – and those of other nations – were subject to radiation effects from the detonation sites. 

Some of the early U.S. nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands. Others, in the desert of the U.S. southwest. 

Almost one quarter of all nuclear tests in history were conducted at one test site in what is now Kazakhstan from 1949 to 1989. The citizens of nearby villages that were exposed now tell the story of the radiation damage caused, including significant genetic effects that crossed generations. 

 On these terrible legacies of nuclear weapons tests was built significant knowledge of their effects. Before the international community united to ban them, mostly ending the practice, this included more than 2,000 nuclear tests. 

Though results were classified in their earliest decades, extensive data from these tests revealed that the use of nuclear weapons could cause major disruptions to temperature patterns, sunlight, and precipitation. Into the 1970s and 80s, it became clearer that such nuclear weapons effects could cause more geographically dispersed and longer-enduring harm than previously realized. 

With such data, the world was able to create mathematical and computer models of ever-increasing sophistication. 

mportantly, the results of modeling potential effects of nuclear war started becoming public in the last decades of the 20th Century. Citizens of the world began to learn more about how the use of nuclear weapons could cause dramatic changes in weather patterns, and how this could drive severe changes in the availability of food and water, and how it would affect peoples’ health and their ability to care for their families. One such initiative labeled the potential damages of nuclear war as a “nuclear winter” that would befall the planet in some scenarios.  ………..

Arms race today / Inflection Point

Unfortunately, this momentum has not been sustained. In the earliest decades of this Century, we have begun moving back in the wrong direction. 

During this time, the risk of nuclear war has begun rising again. Most nuclear-armed nations are trying to expand the types of nuclear capabilities they possess, adding even more scenarios for how these weapons might be used in conflict. 

Unfortunately, several nations — including my own — are reigniting interest in types of nuclear weapons that are envisioned to be more usable in conflict. These include increasing focus on the horrifically mis-labeled, so-called low-yield nuclear weapon options. 

Even more dangerous than the mere presence of such weapons is the mindset that, in the heat of a conflict, it may be feasible to use one nuclear weapon without it being reciprocated. This is a fallacy, and we should not accept it as an assumption steering policy. 

While this wasn’t the case early in the Cold War, this time, under-estimating the effects of using such nuclear weapons is not an excuse. We have to assume that the use of even one nuclear weapon would be followed by another, and potentially lead to a broader nuclear exchange and the catastrophic damage that would follow. Today, we know in great detail what that could look like…………..


If the intersection of nuclear weapons use and climate change is rooted in work to understand how our atmosphere and our world may be altered by both, today we have an even more daunting task. We have to consider how these threats may actually manifest together. 

Some effects of climate change are reigniting attention to past nuclear weapons damages. The Marshall Islands are a central case: at one atoll where the United States conducted nuclear weapon tests, a concrete dome that was designed to encase debris contaminated by these tests is now being inundated by rising seas. We don’t have to model this damage — it has been measured, and we have drone footage recording this occurring………………..

We know that in addition to the immediate death and destruction, such a nuclear conflict also risks significant damage to agricultural production through contamination or disruptions in weather patterns. Now combine this with a scenario in which such conflict occurs when extreme weather exacerbated by climate change has already spent years devastating the world’s food supplies. 

How many more millions of people could starve? How many millions of people will try to move in order to save themselves and their families, and how many communities could descend into instability or internal conflict if pressure is not relieved any other way? 

This is the reality of the world that we live in today — in which several catastrophic risks to humanity are occurring simultaneously, and they are not isolated from one another in time or space. ………….

 I urge the leaders of our nations to commit to serious progress in addressing the climate crisis in the days ahead. We must then also act with urgency, expanding those efforts to rally similar momentum to reduce the risks of nuclear war as well.

November 13, 2021 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, climate change, weapons and war

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