Skip to main content

A nuclear clash could starve the world

By Jayantha Dhanapala and Ira Helfand, Special to CNN
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Sunao Tsuboi, who suffered horrific burns in Hiroshima, holds a photo of himself and friends taken hours after the explosion.
Sunao Tsuboi, who suffered horrific burns in Hiroshima, holds a photo of himself and friends taken hours after the explosion.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: India, Pakistan and North Korea missile tests bring up dangers of nuclear war
  • Study shows war using half of 1% of global nuke arsenals would set off world famine
  • U.S. and Russia have huge nuclear arsenals, they say, a lethal holdover from Cold War
  • It's urgent for talks about reducing arsenals, they write, with a ban on weapons the goal

Editor's note: Jayantha Dhanapala is a former ambassador to the United States from Sri Lanka, U.N. under-secretary general for disarmament and chairman of the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference. Ira Helfand is the past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and current North American vice president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

(CNN) -- Recent ballistic missile tests by India, Pakistan and North Korea -- which has ominously threatened to "reduce to ashes" the South Korean military "in minutes" -- are once again focusing the world's attention on the dangers of nuclear war.

This concern was dramatically underscored in a new report released at the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago. Titled "Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk" (PDF), the study shows that even a limited nuclear war, involving less than half of 1% of the world's nuclear arsenals, would cause climate disruption that could set off a global famine.

The study, prepared by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, used a scenario of 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs exploded in a war between India and Pakistan. If there were such a war, the study estimated that 1 billion people, one-sixth of the human race, could starve over the following decade.

Along with recent events, these findings require a fundamental change in our thinking about nuclear weapons.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Jayantha Dhanapala
Jayantha Dhanapala
Ira Helfand
Ira Helfand

The study, in positing a war between India and Pakistan, shows the importance of understanding that smaller nuclear powers, not just the United States and Russia, pose a threat to the whole world.

But the greater lesson concerns the forces of the larger nuclear powers. Each U.S. Trident submarine can destroy 100 cities and produce the global famine described in the study. The United States has 14 of them, a fleet of land-based nuclear missiles, and an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can be delivered by bombers. The Russians possess the same grotesque overkill capacity.

Even the most ambitious arms reductions under discussion would leave the United States and Russia with 300 warheads each, most of them 10 to 30 times larger than a Hiroshima sized bomb. This would be a massive arsenal capable of producing the global famine scenario many, many times over.

These arsenals are an archaic, but lethal, holdover from the Cold War. Their continued existence poses an ongoing threat to all humanity.

Steps can and should be taken immediately to lessen this danger. Substantial numbers of these weapons remain on what The New York Times has described as "hair-trigger alert." They can be fired in 15 minutes or less and destroy cities a continent away 30 minutes later. This alert posture creates the needless danger of an accidental or unintended launch, and the United States and Russia have had many close calls, preparing to launch a nuclear strike at the other under the mistaken belief they were under attack.

The most recent of these near-misses that we know about took place in January 1995, well after the end of the Cold War. The United States and Russia should stand down their nuclear arsenals so that it takes longer to launch their missiles, lessening the danger of an accidental war. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladamir Putin can take this step on their own without negotiating a formal treaty.

Beyond this, it is time to begin urgent talks aimed at reducing the U.S. and Russian arsenals as the next essential step toward multilateral negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a binding, verifiable, enforceable treaty that eliminates nuclear weapons altogether.

As former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev observed on reviewing the new "Nuclear Famine" study: "I am convinced that nuclear weapons must be abolished. Their use in a military conflict is unthinkable; using them to achieve political objectives is immoral.

"Over 25 years ago, President Ronald Reagan and I ended our summit meeting in Geneva with a joint statement that 'Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,' and this new study underscores in stunning and disturbing detail why this is the case."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT