on January 20, 2015 at 1:54 PM
On the one hand, there have been major increases in the risk of nuclear conflict over the past year. But we have also seen the emergence of a powerful, new international movement pressing for nuclear disarmament.
On the negative side, the most ominous development is the rise of tension between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine, best summed up by President Putin’s warning to the world not to mess with Russia because it has a powerful nuclear arsenal. The crisis has underlined the fact that the US and Russia still confront each other with a combined total of more than 14,000 nuclear weapons, more than 1500 of which are on hair trigger alert, able to be launched in less than 15 minutes.
A war involving the current nuclear forces of the US and Russia would kill hundreds of millions of people in the first 30 minutes and cause a full blown nuclear winter. The soot from the fires started by more than a thousand nuclear explosions would blot out the sun dropping temperatures around the globe to Ice Age levels. Ecosystems would collapse, food production would plummet, and the vast majority of the human race would starve.
But even a much smaller war would have catastrophic global consequences, and the possibility of limited nuclear war also grew this past year. There was a significant increase in fighting between India and Pakistan along their tense border in Kashmir. A war between India and Pakistan, involving just 100 small nuclear weapons, would not cause a full nuclear winter, but it would disrupt climate and food production enough to put 2 billion people across the globe at risk of starvation.
Incredibly, In the face of these terrible threats, the nuclear weapons states are all planning major upgrades of their nuclear forces. Here in the US the administration is considering a modernization plan that will cost over 300 billion dollars in the next 10 years, and nearly a trillion dollars over the next three decades.
On the positive side, a dynamic new movement for nuclear disarmament is forming around the world. In December 158 countries gathered in Vienna for the 3rd International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and affirmed the need to base nuclear weapons policy on the evolving data about the medical consequences of nuclear war. The Pope, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and 44 countries called for a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The Austrian government issued a pledge to build support for such a treaty in the New Year, and to lead efforts to pressure the nuclear weapons states to honor their existing commitments to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.
A few days later, the Nobel Peace Laureates, meeting at their annual Summit, called on all nations to “commence negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time, and subsequently to conclude the negotiations within two years.”
In the realm of civil society, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons now involves more than 350 organizations around the world working to ban nuclear weapons.
Whatever the Bulletin decides to do about the time on the Doomsday Clock, we are clearly much too close to midnight.
For decades the nuclear weapons states have said that they are wise enough, and their technology perfect enough, for us to trust them with weapons that can destroy the world. When we say that they are wrong we are only stating the obvious: no human is wise enough, no human technology perfect enough to hold this power. The time has come to eliminate these weapons once and for all.
Ira Helfand, M.D., is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He lives in Northampton and practices at Family Care Medical Center in Springfield.