Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War

Ira Helfand at Remembering Hiroshima rally

Remarks delivered by Ira Helfand, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, at the Remembering Hiroshima event in Cambridge, August 6, 2013

When President Obama took office in 2009, more than 300 medical leaders from around the world wrote to him and newly inaugurated Russian President Medvedev urging them to take decisive action to eliminated, once and for all, the danger of nuclear war. The letter warned that the global economic crisis and other issues would compete for their attention and cautioned them not to be distracted from the need to address the gravest threat to human survival, the danger of nuclear war.

The fear expressed in that letter came to pass. After the inspiring Prague speech in April 2009 when he set forth his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, President Obama seemed to let the nuclear issue slip from the top of his agenda. The administration did negotiate and secure ratification of the New START Treaty to reduce the numbers of US and Russian nuclear weapons to 1550 on each side, but since then there has been little attention to the urgent need to abolish these weapons. In his speech in Berlin this past June the President did return to the theme of nuclear disarmament, calling for further reductions, but the lack of progress since then contrasts starkly with rapid negotiation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. That June President Kennedy called for a treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and the treaty was signed 6 weeks later.
The need to move forward more energetically for the elimination of nuclear weapons is underlined by emerging data that shows that even a very limited use of these weapons would have catastrophic effects worldwide.

Physicians for Social Responsibility and its global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War released a report last year called Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk. The report examined a series of studies about the aftermath of limited nuclear war. In 2006 Alan Robock, Brian Toon and their colleagues demonstrated that a war involving just 100 Hiroshima sized bombs, less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenals, would loft 5 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere blocking out sunlight, and dropping temperatures and precipitation across the globe.

Since then a series of papers by Mutlu Ozdogan, Lili Xia and Alan Robock have shown that that climate disruption would have a disastrous impact on world food production. The corn harvest in the US, the world’s largest producer of corn, would fall by 12% for a full decade. Rice production in China, the world’s largest producer of rice, would fall even more, nearly 15%, also for a full decade.

There are already some 870 million people in the world today who are malnourished at baseline; they get less than 1750 calories per day, barely enough to maintain their body mass and allow them to do a minimal amount of work to gather or grow food. There are also some 300 million people who are well nourished today, but live in countries that are dependent on food imports which would not be available given the predicted decline in food production. Based on this data, the PSR/IPPNW report concluded that a billion people could starve in the aftermath of the limited war considered in this scenario.

Since then, new studies have been completed, which will be published later this fall, and which show that Chinese wheat production will fall much more than rice output, in the neighborhood of 35%. These new findings suggest that the original study may have significantly underestimated the full impact of limited war. Specifically it appears that China, which had not figured in the original estimates, may also experience widespread famine and a decade of intense social and economic upheaval.

While the US, Russia and the other nuclear powers are reacting slowly, if at all, to this new data, a movement focused on the medical consequences of nuclear war and the need to abolish nuclear weapons does seem to be gathering strength. In 2011 the international Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, citing “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons, called for their abolition and urged all national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies to launch educational campaigns to alert the public to the danger posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

In March of this year the Norwegian government convened a two day conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war in Oslo that was attended by 130 nations. The US, Russia, UK, France and China boycotted the meeting claiming it would be a “distraction” from their efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. Despite their boycott, the participants scheduled a follow up conference which will take place in Mexico in mid February. This “Oslo Process” appears to be firmly on track with growing talk of negotiations for a new Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty which will formally outlaw these most destructive weapons of mass destruction.

On September 26 there will be a High Level Meeting on nuclear disarmament at the UN to further focus attention on the urgent need to abolish these weapons.

If the Obama administration is sincere in its desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, it should embrace these efforts and work itself to create a broader understanding of the terrible danger that nuclear weapons still pose, and of the very real possibility that they will be used someday. Far from being a distraction, this growing movement is essential to create the conditions which will allow/force the nuclear weapons states to meet their obligations to humanity and finally end the nuclear weapons era.