Beyond the immediate devastation of a large-scale nuclear war, a growing number of scientists are concerned about the aftermath of “nuclear winter,” which could result in famine for billions of people across the globe. On Monday, December 11, climate experts will discuss the long-term effects of atomic warfare at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical U nion (AGU) in San Francisco.
While the threat of mutual annihilation by the superpowers has diminished, the risk of nuclear combat has increased, said AGU panelist Stephen Schneider, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University and senior fellow at Stanford?s Woods Institute for the Environment.
“Now we have almost no likelihood of a large-scale nuclear war between Russia and the West, but a much higher probability of a limited number of weapons being used in the next 30 years by rogue states,” he said.
Schneider will be the final speaker at the AGU session titled “Environmental Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts” to be held in Room 3002 at Moscone Center West. The session comes on the heels of the Nov. 16 vote by the U.S. Senate to endorse a plan that reverses decades of U.S. anti-proliferation policy by allowing the government to ship civilian nuclear fuel and technology to India. Critics of the Senate plan argue that it would augment India?s nuclear arsenal and spark a regional arms race with Pakistan and China.
“Not only do we have a higher probability of the use of nuclear weapons, they are much more likely to be used in the tropics, not in the high latitudes,” Schneider said. “It has changed from a big war in the North to smaller explosions in the political South.”
Detonation of nuclear weapons in the tropics could have harsher effects than a war in the northern latitudes, Schneider explained, because heat from the sun could loft plumes of smoke higher into the atmosphere, where it could have a longer cooling effect on the Earth.
“The sun is much stronger in the tropics than it is in mid-latitudes,” he said. “Therefore, a much more limited war [there] could have a much larger effect, because you are putting the smoke in the worse possible place.
“The whole nature of the potential conflict has changed,” he added. “Anything that you can do to discourage people from thinking that there is any way to win anything with a nuclear exchange is a good idea. You still have to be mega-insane to think there is any political objective for which a nuclear explosion is going to do you any good.”