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Ukraine and the Other Side of Climate Change

Nuclear war could happen at any moment. And while the immediate blasts could kill millions of people, the real danger lies in the billions who will starve to death within a matter of weeks and months. We are, one realises after even a modicum of research, totally unprepared to grow food in the event of blackened skies. Sudden global cooling is far more timely a threat than gradual global warming. Yet we ignore it. This is madness.

To be clear, I do not have a clue what is going on in Ukraine in terms of history or geopolitics. What I do have more than a clue about, somewhat unfortunately if one perceives ignorance to be bliss in such matters, is the nuclear weapon capacity of the former “Cold War” super powers—Russia and the US—who are now, once again, having a pissing competition such that the whole world needs to fear getting wet.

In spite of this continued threat, much of the developed world has been hyper-focussed with blinkered myopia on gradual global warming that may not have any serious consequences for decades if not even centuries to come.

With an essay for Areo Magazine entitled The Continued Danger of Nuclear War from late last year, I outlined how even localised nuclear conflicts deploying a tiny fraction of total weapons, can starve billions to death, and how an all-out war between Russia and the US—who have many thousands of weapons each—would lead to below freezing temperatures even in summer, thereby plunging the Earth into a new Ice Age. Other key points of relevance are as follows:

  • There are about 14,000 nukes on Earth (that we know about).
  • If as little as 100 of these weapons were used on cities, the resultant smoke and particulate matter could rise into the upper atmosphere where it would block the sun for years and make it much harder to grow food all over the planet.
  • We have had many nuclear near misses. These were by virtue of pure luck; we happened to have the right people, in the right place at the right time, including heroes you have probably never heard of like Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov.
  • The old Cold War narrative of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) is no longer relevant due to newer revelations about the realities to Nuclear Winter. The most up to date science points to “Self-Assured Destruction” (SAD) in which even the country who fires the weapons, without suffering return fire, will still be affected in their ability to grow food due to blackened skies.
  • There are no plans in place to feed the populace in the event of sudden global cooling induced by even a small scale localised nuclear war involving less than 1/100th global weapons. As I quoted Dr Dave Denkenberger as having said: “no one appears to have a plan for what would happen. Of course you hear about the continuity of government plans, and bunkers, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for actually keeping most people alive.” Is this all that surprising given the shambolic response nearly every government had to the relatively benign pathogen which has caused havoc since early 2020?
  • More scientific publications exist on “dung beetles” than on studying how to feed the world in the event of nuclear weapon induced sudden global cooling.

In his brilliant book, The Precipice, Toby Ord of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute suggests that we entered a new era in 1945 with the militaristic harnessing of the atom:

“With the detonation of the first atomic bomb, a new age of humanity began. At that moment, our rapidly accelerating technological power finally reached the threshold where we might be able to destroy ourselves. The first point where the threat of humanity from within exceeded the threats from the natural world. A point where the entire future of humanity hangs in the balance. Where every advance our ancestors made could be squandered, and every advance our descendants may achieve could be denied…Nuclear weapons were a discontinuous change in human power. At Hiroshima, a single bomb did the damage of thousands. And six years later, a single thermonuclear bomb held more energy than every explosive used in the entire course of the Second World War.” (The Precipice, pg. 23)

In the same book, Ord also suggested that global cooling from nuclear war is just as likely to destroy humanity’s future as the global warming we typically associate with “climate change.” One can imagine this is hard to believe given how little attention nuclear weapon induced starvation gets in comparison to the puritanical activists who are fond of blaming cow farts for melting the ice bergs. That both nuclear winter and runaway global warming could pose at least the same risk, makes the fact we are putting so much focus on gradual global warming, while functionally ignoring sudden global cooling, absolutely mind boggling. Toby Ord’s estimation of this risk has, however, been heavily criticised. In a sobering interview with the Foresight Institute in July 2021, the famous whistle blower and anti-nuclear activist Daniel Ellsberg reckons the risk from the nuclear demon is far larger than Ord proposes. I have huge respect for both men but find myself siding with Ellsberg on this point. Since humans are unpredictable animals, and our technology is incomprehensibly powerful yet subject to error, wobbles can happen at any time which may cause the first domino to fall toward a chain reaction of catastrophe.

Michelle Wucker described our current pandemic as a “gray rhino” rather than a black swan which we couldn’t have predicted:

“The gray rhino is the massive two-ton thing with its horn pointed at you, stomping the ground and getting ready to charge — and, most important, giving you the chance to act. It’s the thing we avoid calling what it is…Paying attention to the gray rhino — that is, working to head off the things we can see in front of us — would be a far better use of our time than retroactively spotting black swans.”

And just as we were obviously underprepared for the current pandemic—as evidenced by a relatively benign pathogen causing untold damage—we are ridiculously unprepared for the sort of sudden global cooling that even a small nuclear war in a localised area could cause. Our pathetic management of this pandemic is as good an indication as any of a very simple fact: we have not been doing a good job of preparing for non-linear gray rhino events, of which nuclear weapon induced sudden global cooling is one of the most worrisome. Our cowardly tolerance of institutional capture by ideological forces, the rampant censorship of inconvenient opinions, the politicisation of science, and a growing prevalence of arrogant tribalistic oneupmanship, are all errors from this pandemic that must not be repeated if humanity is to cross Ord’s Precipice with its future potential intact. We are on the Titanic and must recognise our shared condition in order to adopt an all hands on deck approach. What the Ukrainian conflict is a stark reminder of, however, is that we are always at risk of ignoring the iceberg in favour of egotistical power games in the form of grandiose musical chairs.

If the radioactive phallus wielding notions of supremacy between nuclear armed states—not only between the Russia and the US over Ukraine, but between the West and China over Taiwan, India and Pakistan over Kashmir, etc etc etc—is not akin to a “stomping” rhino giving us a “chance to act,” I don’t know what is. At the acceptable risk of sounding like a naïve idealist, I will highlight words of wisdom on our nuclear predicament by Martin Luther King Jr from 1963:

“If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, pg. 33)

We see certain global leaders in the shape of plastic technocratic careerists, chest puffing populists, and fervent religious zealots, all having access to big red buttons. Yet apart from control over demon summoning launch codes, these world leaders also have something else in common: they are all self-aware primates who, like the rest of their fellow Homo sapiens, are fumbling about trying to make sense of their bizarre situation as what Ernest Becker termed “gods with anuses.” It just so happens that their dread-driven-death-denying immortality projects put the entire future of life at risk. We have godlike powers, as Daniel Schmachtenberger of the Consilience Project often puts it, without the commensurate wisdom and love to responsibly steward such powers. And because our inherent primate fallibilities and limitations mean we cannot guarantee nonviolence from the 9 or so nuclear armed states, we must—if we are to forestall nonexistence—hope for the best while preparing for the worst and assume nuclear weapons will be used someday soon. Part of this preparation will, of course, be in figuring out how to grow food for everyone in the event of blackened skies. Another part of it though, and maybe the key part at that, will be in finding the ability within ourselves to love those all too easy for us to hate. As the great Dr King also makes clear:

“Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.” (A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, pg. 13)

Perhaps the shared threat of total annihilation will facilitate the realisation that in spite of all our knowledge and power, in spite of all we have achieved, we are still fragile animals who are much more similar than different, and much stronger together than apart.

With all that said, we must honestly ask ourselves if we have really earned the right to put so much focus on the gradual warming side of climate change, when we are so obviously unprepared for the threat posed by nuclear weapon induced sudden global cooling. I hope I am wrong, but it seems the Ukrainian situation is showing us we have been putting too many eggs in the wrong basket. This is madness.



Ciaran O’Regan is a physical culturalist and curious generalist. He co-hosts the Learning to Die Podcast and can be found at Quarrelsomelife.com.
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