A nuclear war would be disastrous for the earth’s climate, according to a recent piece in the Atlantic that drew harsh criticism for its focus on the harms posed to the environment by a potential nuclear exchange resulting from the current conflict in Ukraine.
The Wednesday essay, titled “On Top of Everything Else, Nuclear War Would Be a Climate Problem,” was penned by Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer and began by noting climate change is often associated with energy policy.
“When we talk about what causes climate change, we usually talk about oil and gas, coal and cars, and—just generally—energy policy. There’s a good reason for this,” he wrote, adding the “more fossil fuels you burn, the worse climate change gets.”
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) March 12, 2022
Consequently, Meyer explains he spent much time “covering the Trump administration’s attempt to weaken the country’s fuel-economy standards.”
“It was an awful policy, one that would have led to more oil consumption for decades to come,” he wrote. “If pressed, I would have said that it had a single-digit-percentage chance of creating an uninhabitable climate system.”However, the author says, energy is not the sole domain that “has a direct bearing on whether we have a livable climate or not,” but “foreign policy—specifically, nuclear war” does too.“Since Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, that threat has become a lot more real,” he wrote. He then warned of imposing a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, claiming it would lead to an open war between the U.S. and Russia, with a likely chance of a nuclear exchange that would ultimately prove disastrous for the climate.“And it would be worse for the climate than any energy policy that Donald Trump ever proposed,” he wrote.
“If you are worried about rapid, catastrophic changes to the planet’s climate, then you must be worried about nuclear war,” he added. “That is because, on top of killing tens of millions of people, even a relatively ‘minor’ exchange of nuclear weapons would wreck the planet’s climate in enormous and long-lasting ways.”
Meyer, who is also the cofounder of the magazine’s COVID Tracking Project, calls on readers to imagine the detonation of a megaton nuke that would “sear and blister” the flesh of those within several miles of the blast.
A detonation of a bomb that size would, within about a four-mile radius, produce winds equal to those in a Category 5 hurricane, immediately flattening buildings, knocking down power lines, and triggering gas leaks. Anyone within seven miles of the detonation would suffer third-degree burns, the kind that sear and blister flesh. These conditions—and note that I have left out the organ-destroying effects of radiation—would rapidly turn an eight-mile blast radius into a zone of total human misery. Only at that moment, however, would the “climate consequences truly begin,” he claimed, as he warned of large wildfires.Citing a 2007 study that estimated if a hundred small nuclear weapons were detonated, direct fatalities due to smoke and fire would be “comparable to those worldwide in World War II,” the author warned clouds would carry large amounts of resulting soot and ash high into the atmosphere:All this carbon would transform the climate, shielding it from the sun’s heat. Within months, the planet’s average temperature would fall by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit; some amount of this cooling would persist for more than a decade. But far from reversing climate change, this cooling would be destabilizing. It would reduce global precipitation by about 10 percent, inducing global drought conditions.
According to Meyer, the growing season in parts of North America and Europe would be shortened by up to 20 days which would “prompt a global food crisis the world hasn’t seen in modern times.”
A combine harvests rye. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)In a larger conflict, he wrote, “the oceans would become less bountiful; the photosynthesizing plankton that form the basis of the marine food chain would become 5 to 15 percent less productive,” and in the case of a U.S.-Russia war, “fishers worldwide would see their catches decline by nearly 30 percent.”
A herring boat off the coast of South Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)Though the planet would get cooler, the resulting nuclear winter “would not reverse the effect of what we might morbidly call ‘traditional’ human-caused climate change,” he added.He also expressed concern over a declining of “ocean acidification” and the destruction of a good portion of the ozone layer in the wake of such a conflict. “The layer of smoke in the atmosphere would destroy as much as 75 percent of the ozone layer,” he wrote, which would harm humans through entering ultraviolet (UV) radiation.Not only humans would be affected, he added, but higher UV rates would endanger “plants and animals otherwise untouched by the global carnage.”Admitting that people “don’t tend to think of nuclear war as a climate problem” nowadays, Meyer claimed that concerns over such dangers “were part of how modern climate change achieved political prominence in the first place.”He also warned that aside from any direct effects of the bombs, the “full effect” of such detonations could be worse. “If several years of gasoline- and diesel-fueled conventional military operations followed the global destruction, then the permanent consequences for the climate system would be even worse,” he wrote. Such would also be the case if, following the event, society attempted to rebuild “by undertaking a fossil-powered reconstruction,” which the author admits is highly likely.“The ruins of our postwar society would be poorer, and fossil reserves are the easiest energy sources to locate,” he explained. “Renewables, wind turbines, and other decarbonization technology, meanwhile, require secure factories, highly educated engineers, and complicated global networks of trade and exchange.” Noting that all those things depend on a peaceful atmosphere, Meyers concluded, “Solving climate change is a luxury of a planet at peace with itself.”In response, many took to Twitter to ridicule the essay.“The Atlantic is going to put my @TheBabylonBee writers out of a job pretty quick here,” wrote Babylon Bee editor-in-chief Kyle Mann. “We just can’t compete with satire this good.”
— Kyle Mann (@The_Kyle_Mann) March 12, 2022
“The elitist Left has gone truly insane,” wrote radio host Buck Sexton. “That’s not hyperbole, it’s an observation.”
The elitist Left has gone truly insane. That’s not hyperbole, it’s an observation. https://t.co/IiSnf1aXHw
— Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) March 13, 2022
“Of course a nuclear war would kill tens of millions but it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be so good for the climate,” wrote media contributor Joel M. Petlin. “Brilliant!”“Maybe we should try to avoid a nuclear war, just like the @TheAtlantic should avoid publishing silly articles,” he added.
“Environmentalism is petty bourgeois radicalism,” wrote actor Travis Wester.
“It will also be a major step back in addressing trans rights and heteronormative white supremacy,” wrote Reclaim party leader Laurence Fox.
“Next from the Atlantic: ‘A nuclear war wipes out all life on planet earth, women and people of color hurt the most,’” wrote political consultant Ryan James Girdusky.
“We truly live in the dumbest period of human history,” wrote Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research.
“Is this seriously the only way that you think you can get your readership to care about the deaths of tens of millions of people?” a Twitter user asked.
“Ok NOW I’m convinced nuclear war is bad,” quipped another.
“It’d kill tens of millions of people but – far more importantly – it’d be disastrous for climate change!!!!” another wrote sarcastically.
“If you write a headline and it sounds like one from The Babylon Bee or The Onion, maybe ya shouldn’t publish it,” wrote another user.
“I wasn’t worried about nuclear war before. I certainly am now,” a Twitter user wrote. “Also make sure you wear your mask inside a fallout shelter.”
“It’s reassuring … since there’s a climate angle, @POTUS will take the prospect of nuclear war seriously,” wrote another user.
“Tens of millions of people wasn’t the deal breaker…climate change tho…this must end now!” another Twitter user wrote.
The essay comes as the climate change agenda continues to be the focus of many on the left, to the exclusion of urgent and fundamental issues currently facing the country.
On Tuesday, Former California Governor Jerry Brown urged the U.S. not to expand domestic oil and gas production to help in the crisis triggered by the ongoing Russian war because climate change is like a war that will kill people over a long period of time.
On Monday, former director of the United Nations Population Division Joseph Chamie called for a halt to America’s population growth in order to address the “climate emergency.”
Last week, climate czar John Kerry told an informal U.N. Security Council meeting that President Joe Biden is committed to increasing U.S. funding to developing countries by upwards of $10 billion annually to help combat the “climate crisis.”
Kerry, worried the Russian invasion of Ukraine would divert the world’s attention from the fight against climate change, also expressed hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would “stay on track” in the fight against climate change despite the conflict in Ukraine.
In December, renowned climate activist Michael E. Mann claimed denials of “climate change” are “deadlier” than denials of the science behind COVID-19, as he called for social media companies to censor those who disagree with his views on global warming science, effectively removing “climate denial” content in the same way “COVID denial” content is suppressed online.
Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.