By IRA HELFAND
The recent deal with Iran shows that progress can be made to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
The United States worked with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the P5, to secure this deal. But while world leaders acted effectively to deal with the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program, they ignored the far greater threat posed by their own arsenals.
There are more than 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Ninety-five percent of these weapons are in the United States and Russia. Israel, India and Pakistan each have about a hundred warheads. The rest are held by the other P5 states: China, France and the United Kingdom.
Studies show that even a “limited” nuclear war would be a global disaster. A conflict confined to one region of the world, as might occur between India and Pakistan, involving just 100 Hiroshima sized bombs, less than 0.5 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals, would cause worldwide climate disruption. The smoke from burning cities would rise into the upper atmosphere, blocking sunlight. Temperatures across the planet would fall, precipitation would decline and crops would fail.
The resulting global famine would threaten 870 million people in the developing countries who are already malnourished, and 300 million people who live in countries that depend on imported food.
In addition, the crop failures in China would be so huge that an additional 1.3 billion people there would also face severe food shortages. All told, more than 2 billion people would be at risk. China, the world’s largest country, home to the world’s second largest, and most dynamic, economy, would be cast into social and economic chaos.
A catastrophe of this magnitude is unprecedented in human history. It would not lead directly to the extinction of the human species, but it would, in all probability, put an end to modern industrial civilization.
It is not just the arsenals of India and Pakistan that threaten this disaster.
A comparable use of nuclear weapons, by any of the nuclear weapons states, would cause the same effects. A single U.S. Trident submarine carries 96 warheads, each of which is 10 to 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. That means that each of these submarines can cause nuclear famine many times over. The United States has 14 of them, and an arsenal of land missiles and strategic bombers. The Russians have the same level of overkill capacity in their arsenal.
We know of at least five times since 1979 when we have been minutes away from an accidental nuclear war because either Moscow or Washington thought, mistakenly, that they were under attack.
No wonder most of the world is afraid of our weapons. The International Red Cross has launched a major campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Last fall 125 nations joined in a statement at the United Nations calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The United States and the other P5 nations refused to join this statement.
In February, more than 100 nations will convene in Mexico to discuss what will happen if nuclear weapons are actually used. The United States boycotted the last such conference in Oslo this past March. This time we should go the meeting, and we should embrace and lead the growing international movement to abolish nuclear weapons.
Any agreement to reduce nuclear weapons will have to be carefully verified, and there will have to be strict enforcement measures built in to the agreement. It won’t be easy. But we really don’t have a choice. It is profoundly unrealistic to assume that we can continue to maintain enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons and somehow they will never be used. And we now know that even a very limited use of these weapons will be a catastrophe for us all.
Throughout the nuclear era we have been very lucky on many occasions. A hope for continued good luck is not an acceptable U.S. national security policy. We need instead to pursue hardheaded negotiations with all nuclear weapons states so that we can achieve for our children the security of a world free of these terrible weapons.
Ira Helfand is an urgent care physician at Family Care Medical Center in Springfield. He is past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He is author or its new report “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?”