On August 15th, 2022, a press briefing was held under the title “Global Famine after Nuclear War”. The event tackled issues related to the environmental impacts of nuclear war anywhere in the world. It was based on a research paper titled “Global food insecurity and famine from reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection”. This was further summarised in an article published by Nature Food under the title “Nuclear war between two nations could spark global famine”.

The article is a summary of the main findings of the researchers Professors Alan Robock and Lili Xia from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University who were the main speakers in the press briefing alongside Dr Ira Helfand from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

Dr Ira Helfand started by introducing the innovative aspect of this research in his role as a member of the International Steering Committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) as well as a co-chair of Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Nuclear Weapons Abolition Committee.

Professor Alan Robock, a climatologist and a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, then took the floor and presented the main findings of the research.

Professor Lili Xia, co-director of the Rutgers Impact Studies of Climate Intervention (RISCI) and an Assistant Research Professor at Rutgers University, then presented the second part of the report that deals with statistics related to nuclear famine.

The research that the event is addressing focuses on the environmental impacts of nuclear war on our planet and lifestyle, whether on a large or small scale. The research predicts that a nuclear winter would be expected if a nuclear war ever happened. An emphasis was also put on role of the media in raising awareness in order to reduce the arms race which was proven effective in the last century when mass movements of people became aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons and pressurised their governments to disarm. As Dr Helfand emphasised, “We need to create movements where we put pressure on the leaders of these states [that have nuclear weapons] the same way we did in the 1980s when they figured out that the situation was leading to a disaster”.

The press briefing revealed some shocking results of the findings shared in Nature Food. The speakers started by showcasing how the Earth would look like after a “nuclear holocaust”. Thick clouds resulting from the fires would darken the planet, increase the UV rates while reducing the average temperatures to 15°C and as a result of soot being injected to the upper atmosphere. This would start in the northern hemisphere and ultimately cover the entire planet, resulting in a “nuclear winter” and leading to drought, darkness, higher UV rates, death of crops, global famine and countless deaths of human beings.

Expanding more on this finding, the speakers revealed that the aftermath of a nuclear war would be more catastrophic than research indicated 40 years ago, after a large-scale nuclear war. Even a small-scale war would result in disastrous effects that could last for over a decade.

The speakers then tackled the exact impacts of a large-scale nuclear war; one between the USA and Russia, as opposed to a small-scale one such as between India and Pakistan. The latter would entail a release of 16 to 36 million tonnes of black carbon in smoke and this would consequently result in a decrease in food resources. The former is expected to entail a release of 50 to 150 million tonnes of smoke if a full-scale nuclear war were to happen.

The results obtained were calculated without taking into consideration social factors, but solely based on the data available. Nevertheless, that did not change the fact that the shocking results revealed a dim future for our planet if a nuclear war were to happen. Food shortages would be one of the main issues we face. As countries would stop trading with one another in order to be able to feed their own people, other countries will suffer and inequality would deepen. Countries that are leading in trade would suffer less once they stop trading. They would be able to compensate for the loss and manage to feed their people, but for a limited period of time until all of their resources cease. Others would suffer greatly due to the lack of crops, livestock, and most importantly lack of trading.

A nuclear famine is a result that we cannot deny and that is expected to be one of the leading issues if a nuclear war were to happen. Global starvation due to a lack of agricultural goods and lack of livestock would make the situation even worse. As Prof. Xia explained, countries would resort to considering alternatives such us resorting to fishery, reducing livestock or resorting to no livestock at all in order to increase food portions for people. Nevertheless, these attempts would not prevent that starvation from happening and all the goods that have been saved would be consumed in a short period of time.

It is important to note, as one of the speakers pointed out, even though the arms race has decreased, the weapons have become more lethal and disastrous. It has become a race of quality rather than quantity. That is to say, even though there are less nuclear weapons in the world, they would be more lethal than the ones witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the Q&A section of the event, the speakers addressed a few questions to expand on the previous points that they mentioned. A very interesting response was related to whether radioactivity would become a huge issue if a nuclear war were to happen. Interestingly, Prof. Robock stated that “radioactivity would be an issue only where the bombs are dropped and depending on the wind, but it wouldn’t be a huge issue to deal with” compared to the other dangers mentioned throughout the event.

Professor Robock emphasised that “we know how to dissolve [nuclear weapons], take them apart and refurbish them. It’s the will to do it, not the technology, that’s the issue”.

The only way for us to avoid such disastrous expectations is, as Prof. Robock concluded his presentation “to get rid of nuclear weapons”.

Useful links:

IPPNW report on Nuclear Famine: https://ippnweupdate.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/nuclear-famine-2022.pdf

Nature Food Study on Nuclear Famine: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-022-00573-0

The presentation: http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/robock/talks/NuclearWinter153UNnohidden.pptx