Climate change, famine and nuclear weapons


Climate change and nuclear weapons are both man-made threats that put humanity’s very survival at risk. The two threats are also interconnected in ways that mutually exacerbate the risks and impacts to people and the planet, which is why they are also referred to as the ‘twin existential threats’. The connections include the global famine caused by the climate disruption following a nuclear war, other environmental damage exacerbated by climate change effects (and vice versa), the diversion of financial resources which could be used to combat climate change, and powerful economic interests invested in preserving the status quo. 

Nuclear winter, global famine, environmental devastation

For decades, scientists have warned of and modeled the climate disruption that would follow any nuclear conflict.  

After the explosion,smoke and dust from firestorms would block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface and cause an abrupt drop in global temperatures and rainfall, leading to shorter growing seasons and decreasing overall agricultural production and fish stocks worldwide. A recent study published in Nature Food modeled that after a global nuclear war, global average caloric production would decrease by about 90% three to four years after the fighting and the resulting famine could kill 5 billion people. Even a limited, regional nuclear conflict would lead to the deaths of over 2 billion people.

And even though temperatures would drop, a nuclear winter would not reverse the effects of global warming. It would exacerbate some effects, including ocean acidification and damage to the ozone layer. Higher levels of UV radiation would cause widespread harm to humans, animals and plants.

While people are often understandably focused on what nuclear war would mean for humans, both the direct and indirect consequences would be devastating for wildlife, plants and entire ecosystems.

A climate-stressed world increases the danger of nuclear war 

The environmental stresses caused by climate change, such as increasingly insecure access to food and water, are helping to drive an upsurge in armed conflict and are contributing to the highest ever number of people forcibly displaced worldwide. Military and security strategists worldwide assess that global warming is a pre-eminent and accelerating threat to security that amplifies other threats. The resulting global instability is increasing the danger of nuclear war.

Environmental consequences of nuclear weapons exacerbated by climate change - and vice versa 

Nuclear weapons also harm the environment long before they are used. Uranium mining, nuclear waste dumps and of course testing of the actual bombs contaminate the earth and sea. 

The production and testing of nuclear weapons has appalling environmental consequences, and with the changing climate, this increases the risks of catastrophe. In the Marshall Islands, the rising sea levels that already threaten the islands themselves  are also increasing the pressure on a concrete dome under which the waste of 43 nuclear tests is buried. If that dome crumbles or slides off, its radioactive contents will be released into the lagoon and ocean, putting both the environment and the health of those living nearby at risk.

Nuclear weapons facilities – not unlike the oil and gas companies exacerbating the climate crisis – have contaminated the environment with radiation that will last far beyond even our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Waste is one of the most insidious ways that nuclear weapons disregard the environment and the health of future generations because cleanup is left until years later, when the damage has already been done and often forgotten. 

Economic and social justice issues

As with the effects of climate change, the consequences of nuclear weapons fall disproportionately on developing countries and indigenous and other marginalized people. Nuclear test explosions, nuclear weapons production and uranium mining have caused serious health consequences, socioeconomic disruption and lasting environmental damage in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The investment in the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons comes at a huge cost — money that could be used to develop sustainable and green technologies. The nine nuclear-armed countries between them spend US$156,000 per minute on their nuclear weapons. That means that one hour of nuclear weapons spending costs the same as operating and maintaining 203 commercial windmills for an entire year. 

Action against both climate change and nuclear weapons is opposed, obstructed and sabotaged by powerful commercial interests. Just as fossil fuel companies resist efforts to reduce emission and move to renewable energy sources, companies involved in the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear weapons resist efforts to stigmatize and delegitimize nuclear weapons and to move forward on nuclear disarmament. Many of the tactics are the same: funding think-tanks and research, lobbying governments, forecasting job losses and economic harm.

What to do? 

The international community’s approach to the climate crisis needs to broaden to include the jeopardy of abrupt nuclear winter from nuclear weapons. A healthy and sustainable future for all life on Earth requires that we act to rapidly transition to renewable energy systems and net zero carbon emissions, and that we prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, with the utmost urgency demanded of us. The most effective way for all nations to lift the nuclear threat and build security for their own and all people is to join and implement the historic UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“If nuclear weapons exist, they can be used, and the world has come close to nuclear war several times. Banning nuclear weapons is the only long-term solution.” - Alan Robock, co-author of Nature Food paper.


Further reading


Photos: Ishan Tankha via Climate Visuals Countdown