‘Nuclear Winter’ And The Urgent Need For Public Education

What would a “nuclear winter” be like? While there is no immediate sign of nuclear warheads being used in the Russia-Ukraine war, the risks of a nuclear exchange are surely at their highest for 40 years.

So why is there so little awareness of the potential consequences of the use of nuclear warheads?

That’s the question at the core of new research published today by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). It’s based on a survey last month of 3,000 people in the US and UK that was designed to discover how much is known about “nuclear winter.”

It reveals a lack of awareness among US and UK populations of what a “nuclear winter” would entail. Just 3.2% in the UK and 7.5% in the US said they had heard of “nuclear winter” in contemporary media or culture.

In short, we need another Carl Sagan, the late popular scientist who in the early 1980s famously warned the world about the effects of nuclear war.

“There is an urgent need for public education within all nuclear-armed states that is informed by the latest research,” said Paul Ingram, CSER senior research associate. “We need to collectively reduce the temptation that leaders of nuclear-armed states might have to threaten or even use such weapons in support of military operations.”

A “nuclear winter” would be the result of a chain reaction that would go something like this:

  • Nuclear warheads striking cities would cause firestorms and send huge amounts of soot into the stratosphere.
  • That soot would block out much of the Sun for up to a decade.
  • Temperatures would drop around the world, leaving many places sub-zero.
  • Mass crop failure. International trade in food suspended.
  • Mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people in countries remote from the conflict.
  • Soil and water close to where nuclear weapons were used would be contaminated.

A paper published in August 2022 in Nature Food modeling the amount of soot injected into Earth’s atmosphere after the detonation of nuclear weapons predicted that more than five billion people could die from a war between the U.S. and Russia. The authors suggested that while the use of relatively few nuclear weapons may have a small global impact, “once a nuclear war starts, it may be very difficult to limit escalation.”

If most people are unaware of the consequences of nuclear warfare then that’s a problem for society, particularly in the event of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine, according to the CSER. “Any stability within nuclear deterrence is undermined if it is based on decisions that are ignorant of the worst consequences of using nuclear weapons,” said Ingam. “Of course, it is distressing to consider large-scale catastrophes, but decisions need to account for all potential consequences to minimize the risk.”

The survey also gauges support in the UK and US for western retaliation against Russia in the event of a nuclear attack on Ukraine. Fewer than one in five people surveyed in both countries supported nuclear retaliation, with men more likely than women to back nuclear reprisal: 20.7% (US) and 24.4% (UK) of men compared to 14.1% (US) and 16.1% (UK) of women.

However, support for nuclear retaliation was lower by 16% in the US and 13% in the UK among participants shown infographics on “nuclear winter” than among a control group.

“In 2023 we find ourselves facing a risk of nuclear conflict greater than we’ve seen since the early 1980s,” said Ingam. “Yet there is little in the way of public knowledge or debate of the unimaginably dire long-term consequences of nuclear war for the planet and global populations.”

“Ideas of nuclear winter are predominantly a lingering cultural memory as if it is the stuff of history, rather than a horribly contemporary risk.”

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