Climate, Nuclear Weapons, A New Era

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine has a compelling article  narrating the history of the nuclear arms race from the end of World War II to the present.  The article describes a transition from the Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MDA) and the build up of nuclear arsenals to tens of thousands of war heads to their present levels numbering about 15,000.  According to the article, the US has spent over $5 trillion amassing its portion of that nuclear arsenal.  The forecast is that the costs will rise significantly as the arsenal is modernized with improved technology; it predates much of what we take for granted in our current communications and computing power.

The article, which I urge you to read in full, discusses how Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative began to displace MDA as a stasis between nuclear powers:  if suddenly the US were able to thwart an incoming attack, there would be no MDA.  Today’s nuclear view is at least that hazy: what if state actors aren’t the only ones who can attack with fission or fusion devices?

What astonished me about the article was how it tied the development of nuclear arsenals to the development of climate studies.  The advent of climate research apparently was the military itself in the early 1950s.  These studies led to an understanding of how above ground testing could affect weather, climate, but even more pertinent to the military and government officials was detection of those tests.  If you recall the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland that disrupted air traffic because of the immense clouds of ash that reached the upper atmosphere and spread far and wide, it will come as no surprise that these early military studies keyed on volcanic eruption data.  In fact, most of the climate data agencies that exist today had their genesis from this military research.

Of course, it was not and is not that simple.  If it were, we would likely have no debates going on politically, economically or scientifically today.  Enter Carl Sagen and his nuclear winter theory.  It provided a scary scenario of what would happen around the world if nuclear weapons were used only in specific areas of the wold.  Critics claimed there was too much unknown risk in the modeling assumptions (but may have ignored the risk assumptions in their own models).  Sides were taken, teams drawn up.  Sagen, a true scientist, was an easy target for his critics because he was also widely popular as a writer and as host of Cosmos on PBS.  Yes, I watched it faithfully, full disclosure.

I am writing about this article and asking you to delve deeper into how the climate debate and the nuclear arsenal are so linked together, not to change anyone’s mind.  I do hope, that like happened to me, you will understand a lot more about the complexities and lack of niceties of these two important parts of our history and contemporary problems.

What it also did was to get me thinking about how non-state actors, terrorists, might use nuclear and biological weapons that leverage the weather and climate.

Launching a nuclear weapons attack is no small feat. First you need the know-how to construct the weapon.  Not such a biggie these days, but it also takes sufficient nuclear material and not a small amount of engineering.  And in constructing it, you have to worry about killing yourself from radiation exposure and accidental detonation.  The hardest part, though, is the delivery systems.  They require money, physical size, and must avoid detection until targets are reached.  The dirty bomb in a truck is still hard because shielding the radiation from the weapon is hard relative to detecting it.

Thinking about climate relative to nuclear weapons scared me more than a truck.  Load up a cargo ship with crushed volcanic rock, store a bomb on it, and detonate it offshore before it is detected (please, please have detection systems I am not aware of). Would the ash, not just containing particulates and sulfur but also radioactive material, spread out over the coast line and inwards doing far more damage and deadly destruction than the blast force?  What if the ship were sunk and the bomb exploded underwater?  Would the explosion be large enough to create a tsunami in targeted areas?

Still a lot of uncertainty in the risk assumptions for these and other scenarios.  I worry more about biological attacks.  It probably doesn’t take much of an advanced degree today nor a vast amount of equipment to use CRIPSR techniques to turn mosquitoes into swarms of deadly weapons.  Or lady bugs.  Or whatever.  Borne by the same winds and weather that we debate about as heading us to calamity or oblivion, we have little or no defense or maybe even warning for such malevolent agents.

What lets me fall asleep at night is that however easier this stuff gets, it’s still hard.  However destructive some terrorists might be, the uncertainty and risk of weather, climate, as a delivery system makes it too risky for what they envision as their world afterwards.  That scientific research will not get underfunded and put into the scrap of history because politicians don’t understand or don’t agree with it.  Science has pushed us forward, sometimes haltingly, for centuries. It is capable of so much, but it needs good policy and leadership, not scorn and derision.

The hallmark of science is not that it is always right but that it has self-correction built into its methodologies.  It is meant to be continually tested and challenged, not by opinions but by facts.  What non-scientists have to learn to do is to recognize the difference between the two.  Opinions change all the time, but facts really don’t.  What changes is knowledge, something that sheds light on the boundaries of facts.  We though the earth was flat (and people emphatically stood by that opinion), we though the earth was the center of the universe, that stars were glowing points on some cosmic fabric, that disease was caused by foul air and spirits, and so much more that has been displaced by knowledge and scientific verification.

It may not have mattered to anyone’s day to day life if the earth were flat or round, if there were countless stars and we were at the edge of one part of the universe, but it may matter greatly if our species is impacting the livability of our planet or is someone has the wherewithal to match their desire to destroy a big part of us.  We should not err on the side of inaction or doubt, but to do what we can and do it now to not let that happen.

The popular corporate slogan when the nuclear arms race was “THINK.”  It should still be the number one thing we do.