Climate Science and Nuclear Strategy

There is a good article with much food for thought in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the climatic impacts of nuclear exchanges by William Ossoff, a budding young scholar. The article opens by saying,

Improvements in climate modeling have provided greater insights into the long-term consequences of nuclear weapons use. But these studies are built upon a number of debatable assumptions—particularly about the way that nuclear weapons would be employed in a real conflict—that reduce their utility. What is needed now is collaboration between climate scientists and military strategists to understand the climactic consequences of plausible limited nuclear exchanges. Such research could alter cost-benefit calculations about nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.

There is a link between the advent of quantitative climatology as a science and speculation about the anthropogenic causes of global climate change. For example, the Soviet scientist, Mikhail Budyko, often seen as the father of quantitative climatology, observed in 1969

The contemporary stage of biological evolution, linked with the appearance of humankind, is a significant factor for the future development of climate in so far as the activity of humankind opens up the prospect of substantial climate change in the near future. Thus, in our time, natural changes of climate are to be gradually replaced by changes created and regulated by humankind.

In the 1980s human impacts on the climate was dominated by the debate on nuclear winter, rather than global warming due to the greenhouse effect. This debate had important political effects. My understanding is that this played a role in the revival of theories regarding the possibility of a period of global glaciation, or “Snowball Earth,” in geologic history as some speculated how severe nuclear winter could conceivably be thus reviving interest in the topic; I am not certain of this, however.

Budyko and other Russian scientists claimed that in the Soviet Union concern about and study of the climatic effects of nuclear war developed earlier, that is to say from the 1970s.

That is plausible. The key to the debate on the climatic impact of nuclear war is the release of soot into the atmosphere caused by firestorms.

In the United States firestorms tended to be neglected when thinking about the effects of nuclear exchanges because there existed a bias toward concentrating on the blast effects of nuclear weapons. This bias was reflective of a nuclear strategy dominated by the concept of counterforce, and nuclear strategists showed little to no concern about the fire effects of nuclear weapons.

This history is important for the Bulletin article points out the assumptions that underpin the climatic effects of nuclear exchanges are of crucial importance when evaluating them, but so are the strategic assumptions and on these we must defer to the nuclear strategists.

The first are assumptions of science that underpin the climate models investigated; how much soot would a nuclear exchange release into the atmosphere? How high into the atmosphere? And so on.

The second are assumptions of strategy. How many nuclear weapons would be launched in a nuclear strike or what would be the mega tonnage? What are the most likely yields of nuclear weapons employed in initial strikes? And so on.

Climatologists know their models and their climate, but they don’t know their nuclear strategy.

Those who model the climatic effects of nuclear weapons base their assumptions on nuclear weapons employment in a manner not informed by considerations of policy or strategy, critics thereby point out. For example, a recent study of a nuclear exchange in South Asia assumed the use of 50 to 100 nuclear weapons of certain yields on exclusively urban-industrial targets.

Yet South Asia’s nuclear strategists are as enamoured of the ideas of “the wizards of Armageddon” as ours are, which is to say a lot.

Whilst this is true, one must be wary of nuclear strategists and their assumptions.

When you read the article you get the impression that a likely form of nuclear conflict begins with a controlled escalation leading to a game of intra-war deterrence of the type that has been a staple of nuclear strategic thinking since the Nixon administration’s NSDM 242.

Let us grant the assumption that such strategic thinking underpins the plans of the US, Russia and, say, India and Pakistan. Such ideas are the holy grail of nuclear strategists everywhere.

The problem is we have long known that nuclear exchanges are uncontrollable, and the process of intra-war deterrence thereby becomes untenable as nuclear war after a few detonations turns into an uncontrollable process.

Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle nuclear war becomes an all out affair; use them or lose them, as the refrain goes. So assumptions on the climatic effects of nuclear war that assume worst case scenarios have a strong air of plausibility to them, in my view. The last step in the ladder of escalation tends to be an all out attack on a good number of urban-industrial targets.

The problem of nuclear war is that this last step is the most likely step, precisely because of nuclear war’s uncontrolled nature.

I have long regarded nuclear strategy and nuclear strategists as next to useless. I am not persuaded that we have here a new found utility for them.