“Small” nuclear war = global famine

Even a “small” nuclear war involving 100 nuclear weapons could produce climate effects severe enough to threaten global famine, warns a new report by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility:

A nuclear war anywhere in the world, using as few as 100 weapons, would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production so severely that the lives of more than a billion people would be at risk. IPPNW’s research study Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk—Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition explains how even the relatively small nuclear arsenals of countries such as India and Pakistan could cause long lasting, global damage to the Earth’s ecosystems.

Among the specific findings in Nuclear Famine, which was released in April 2012, are:

  • Corn production in the US would decline by an average of 10% for an entire decade, with the most severe decline (20%) in year 5. Soybean production would decline by about 7%, with the most severe loss, more than 20%, in year 5.
  • There would be a significant decline in middle season rice production in China. During the first 4 years, rice production would decline by an average of 21%; over the next 6 years the decline would average 10%.
  • Increases in food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest. Even if agricultural markets continued to function normally, 215 million people would be added to the rolls of the malnourished over the course of a decade.
  • Significant agricultural shortfalls over an extended period would almost certainly lead to panic and hoarding on an international scale, further reducing accessible food.
  • The 925 million people in the world who are already chronically malnourished (with a baseline consumption of 1,750 calories or less per day), would be put at risk by a 10% decline in their food consumption.

“The death of one billion people over a decade would be a disaster unprecedented in human history,” said the report’s author, Dr. Ira Helfand. “It would not cause the extinction of the human race, but it would bring an end to modern civilization as we know it.”

Nuclear Famine is the second IPPNW publication to address the global health and environmental consequences of a nuclear war using only a fraction of the more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Zero is the Only Option: Four Medical and Environmental Cases for the Eradication of Nuclear Weapons, published in 2010, describes the severe climate disruption that would result from a “limited” nuclear war, and summarizes the medical consequences of blast, heat, and radiation from nuclear explosions.

Nine countries currently possess nuclear arms, boasting a combined arsenal of roughly 20,000 weapons.

Reaching Critical Will recently examined the nuclear-weapon modernization programs in eight of those countries (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and documented that all eight have plans to modernize—upgrade and/or extend the lives of—their nuclear weapons (Ray Acheson (ed.), Assuring destruction forever: Nuclear weapon modernization around the world, Reaching Critical Will, March 2012).

The ninth nuclear possessor, North Korea, is also thought be upgrading its nuclear capabilities and is widely expected to conduct its third nuclear test in the near future.

Illustration by Rob Wood

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