Climate Change As Nuclear War in “Slow Motion”

By the early 1980s cold war tensions were at their peak. The so-called “throw weight” of nuclear warheads was at an all-time high. Nevertheless, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, people just didn’t think too much about it. Gone were the days of “duck and cover” and the building/designation of air raid shelters—mostly useless anyway.

It wasn’t until Carl Sagan and some of his colleagues released a report on the results of nuclear war leading to nuclear winter that people were shocked into action. They learned that nuclear blasts were just the “tip of the iceberg.” Not only would radiation slowly kill many more around the globe, but all the soil sucked up into the atmosphere would create a global dust cloud blocking the sun, thus lowering the global ambient temperature. This would lead to the destruction of most plant life. This is essentially what happened when the asteroid of 65 million years ago took out the dinosaurs; dust blocked the sunlight and it got cold.

I first read about nuclear winter in the Boston Globe. As powerful as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were (15 and 21 kilotons, respectively), these were nothing as compared with hydrogen bombs up to 30 megatons and the multiply independent reentry vehicles (MIRVed) warheads that would deliver these atop ICBM missiles. The initial blast and fireball from just one of these bombs detonated at about 5000 feet overhead could completely destroy all of the New York City metropolitan area. Of course, the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R had hundreds of these bombs.

The result of this report shocked American, European and Soviet people into action. There was extreme pressure placed on leaders of both sides to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war. This pressure led to SALT (strategic arms limitation talks) and the eventual signing of START (strategic arms reduction treaty)—based on trust but verify.

With some growing exceptions, mostly among our youth, we now see the same “head in the sand” approach to climate change. In fact, we see climate change more as an annoyance than as something catastrophic. We go about our daily business as the oceans warm, becoming more acidic as their oxygen levels decline. Meanwhile, the Tundra, Amazon, Australia and the American West are consumed by wild fires, sea levels rise, and coastal cities are flooded. Eventually, famine, disease, and political conflict will drastically reduce the human population (and many other species).

Although climate change is taking place in the blink of an evolutionary eye, it is far too slow to shock us because our brains are designed to focus on immediate threats.

What will it take to shock us?