Even A "Minor" Nuclear War Would Be An Ecological Disaster Felt Throughout The World

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Katy Evans 15 Aug 2017, 16:23

The Conversation President Donald Trump’s vow to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is an unveiled threat to unleash America’s most potent weapons of mass destruction onto the Korean peninsula. According to many defense analysts, the risk of nuclear confrontation over Europe and the Indian subcontinent has also increased in recent years.

In a more hopeful turn of events, 122 countries voted in June to adopt the United Nations Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons in New York. The “ban treaty” will make nuclear weapons illegal for ratifying countries, and many see it as an opportunity to kick start a renewed effort towards multilateral disarmament. Supporters of the treaty argue that even a limited, regional nuclear war would produce a catastrophic and global humanitarian crisis.

Equally, other analysts suggest that the reality is not as severe as is often depicted. In March this year, Matthias Eken, a researcher of attitudes towards nuclear weapons, wrote in The Conversation that their destructive power “has been vastly exaggerated” and that one should avoid overusing “doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic language”.

Eken argued that nuclear weapons are not as powerful as often described, on the basis that a 9 megaton thermonuclear warhead dropped over the state of Arkansas would only destroy 0.2% of the state’s surface area. He also observed that more than 2,000 nuclear detonations have been made on the planet without having ended human civilization, and argued that if we want to mitigate the risk posed by nuclear weapons, we must not exaggerate those risks.

Eken’s sanguine approach towards nuclear weapons stands in contrast to the more dramatic rhetoric of global humanitarian catastrophe and existential threats to humanity. So what is the basis for the latter?

Nuclear war is also a war on the environment

The greatest concern derives from relatively new research which has modeled the indirect effects of nuclear detonations on the environment and climate. The most-studied scenario is a limited regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving 100 Hiroshima-sized warheads (small by modern standards) detonated mostly over urban areas. Many analysts suggest that this is a plausible scenario in the event of an all-out war between the two states, whose combined arsenals amount to more than 220 nuclear warheads.

In this event, an estimated 20m people could die within a week from the direct effects of the explosions, fire, and local radiation. That alone is catastrophic – more deaths than in the entire of World War I.

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