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Thursday, July 15, 2010

John Hallam "Life, the Universe and (Avoiding) the end of Everything"

Posted with author John Hallam's permission, before this is published as a CPACS (Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney) working paper, with edition and references.


Life, the Universe and (Avoiding) the End of Everything


John Hallam

Let's make one thing clear.

Nuclear weapons are still, and have been ever since their large-scale deployment in the 1960's, about the end of pretty much everyone and everything, or at least of all that we, as distinct from an anaerobic bacterium, might consider to be useful, interesting, and valuable.

They are not literally about the 'end of the world' as after their use, the world - this planet that is - will still be here, and rotating on its axis, notwithstanding some Hollywood disaster movies and the end of the Mayan calendar next year - which may signify the end of an aeon or may signify nothing at all. Even the coronal mass ejections predicted for 2012 will at worst (hopefully anyway) destroy no more than all global telecommunications, the net, and perhaps the global financial system (with luck).

The same result could be achieved by half a dozen to a dozen megaton-sized nuclear weapons exploding in outer space: The electromagnetic pulse, just like a coronal mass ejection, would destroy both satellite-based communication systems and black out electrical systems (not only delicate electronics but right up to high-tension switchyards) on earth, taking us back to a pre-electrical age.

This is a great deal less than the end of everything and some might even find the change attractive. (Though I have become addicted to the net).

However it has long been recognised that the large-scale use of nuclear weapons (ie more than 1000 warheads of 200Kt-1Megaton size) for their default function of 'city - busting' would:

1)Kill anything between 1 and 3-4 billion people in 40-90 minutes;

2) Convert upwards of 1000 large cities. mostly but not exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere, into firestorms that would burn until nothing is left to burn.( from whence comes the above body - count);

3) Loft roughly 150 million tonnes of very black, sunlight-absorbing, soot into the stratosphere where it would seem likely to stay for decades;

The black soot would severely drop global temperatures both in northern and in tropical and subtropical regions, the extent of the effect being most marked in the north and gradually dropping in the southern hemisphere. The best place to be is Antarctica or the South Sandwich Islands, the Falklands, Patagonia, or the south island of NZ.

Crops would not grow, possibly for as long as a decade.

Even a 'mini' nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, involving a 'mere' 100-150 or so weapons on each side, 0.3% of global nuclear arsenals, and 0.03% of megatonnage, would according to a recent article in Scientific American by Toon and Robock, and studies by Ira
Helfand of IPPNW,

--Cause the complete destruction of both India and Pakistan as functioning societies;

--Bring about either 50 million, or 150 million or up to 300 million, 'prompt' casualties (including my many Indian friends), depending exactly which horrible scenario you decide to model;

--Cause global climatic effects of a 'nuclear autumn' type in which widespread crop failure could bring about a further billion or so deaths from starvation.

A major US-Russian nuclear exchange of the kind that would have resulted somewhere between a dozen and half a dozen times (but this can only actually ever happen once - there are no second chances) - from miscalculation, computer error and/or blind panic - the ultimate 'bad-hair-day' as it were, at Stratcom, Cheyenne Mountain, Serpukhov-15 or Kosvinsky Mountain - would certainly terminate what we call civilisation, and lead to questions as to our survival as a species. In addition, the abrupt drop in temperatures, possibly to as low as zero at the equator, would destroy tropical ecosystems completely, together with 95% of all land-based living species, even
at current New START warhead levels, in a similar manner to the impact of a largish asteroid.

To get a feel for this kind of event, see 'The Road' or 'The Testament of Eli', two somewhat realistic post - apocalypse movies, noting that what makes movies such as this interesting - the continued survival of at least some humans - is not to be taken as a given. Note Jonathan Schell's quote in 'The Fate of the Earth' 'The more megatons, the less there is to say'.

To put things in proper perspective there is the article in the September 2008 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists whose title says it all, really: 'Minimising the risk of human extinction'. After noting that we will anyway be lucky to survive beyond a million or so years, the article gives us a rather important 'to do' list to maximise our chances in the next century or so, which apart from
urging us to keep watching briefs on large incoming asteroids, experiments at LHC that might possibly cause the entire solar system to disappear in a flash of gamma rays and exotic particles, on nanotech especially self-replicating 'grey goo', and on biotech, and of course to take action to mitigate and prevent climate change, places at the very top of that 'to do' list the lowering of the
operational status of nuclear weapons systems (number one) and the elimination of nuclear weapons (number two).

Now I've done the really cheery bits, so now for the mind-glazing alphabet soup.

The stakes for which nuclear weapons are rightly objects of concern truly don't get any higher, and this is a fact which while forgotten by the wider public since 1990, has not been forgotten by governments and receives regular if ritualistic, repetition at nuclear - weapons - related conferences. While attending this years NPT Review Conference, at one point in the proceedings more or less at random I realised that in the space of about 15 minutes I'd heard three governments say that in one way or another the fate of humans depended on the elimination of nuclear weapons or that they are the number one short term threat to civilisation and survival. Such statements have become routine.

So....are we teetering on the brink of a terrible abyss, or sensibly pulling back from it? Who is closest to the crumbling edge?

There are currently some 23,000 nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic, in the world, of which 95% are still in the hands of Russia and the US.

It is well to note that as of now, Iran still currently has no warheads (and says it has no intention to obtain them), the DPRK possibly has ten and as it has supplied the Pakistani delivery system, (The Ghauri missile is simply a Nodong) I have difficulty believing that it has no delivery system itself. Pakistan has somewhere between 60 and 100, and India roughly the same (with the
edge in delivery systems and warheads now belonging to Pakistan and estimates of 60-80 warheads probably now too low), Israel has somewhere between 100 and 300 warheads, China somewhere between 150 and 300 warheads seemingly closer to the lower figure, France has
around 300 warheads trending downwards toward 250, and the UK around 150 warheads these days, entirely in submarines, and (as in the case of France also), with the 'notice to fire' altered in 1998 from 'minutes' to 'days'.

Of the 22,000 US and Russian warheads, there is a considerable 'bounce' in the numbers, resulting from the question of 'when is a warhead no longer a warhead?' When it is moved from the 'operational' category to the 'non-operational' category (it can be moved back in days or even hours)? When it is removed from its delivery system (but gravity bombs are routinely kept not attached to aircraft) ? When it is in some way 'de-activated' (but a few turns of a screwdriver could activate it once more)? or when it is decisively made permanently non-operational (a good way is to fill it with molasses it seems).

Of those 22,000 US and Russian warheads, a relatively small fraction (5-8,000) are in the 'operational' category, with all the vagueness and caveats that implies.

Some approx 2000 warheads each can be said to be on high alert, able to be fired in minutes.

Russia has something of a preponderance in total warhead numbers, though the number on alert on each side is near to the same. However, Russian command and control systems, though 'harder' than US ones, are generally in worse shape, and Russia still relies on cold - war era SS-18 and 19 missiles (still entirely capable of lobbing a megaton - sized warhead on Sydney), which it is only slowly replacing with the state of the art Topol-M missile, while replacing its SLBMs ith the Bulava missile with which it has had trouble. (though the most recent Bulava test seems to have been successful). Russia is also home to the cheerily - named 'Perimeter', or 'Dead-Hand' 'doomsday machine', a system that when activated, essentially monitors the communications of its own general staff and if that communication system goes dead is supposed to launch verything, via a couple of communication missiles that trail long aerials.

Presumably there is a human someplace in the loop who can pick up a phone to general staff and verify if they have in fact been vaporised or are merely having a coffee - break.

We noted that the US and Russia maintain approximately 2000 warheads on high alert, essentially the land-based ICBM component of their missile forces. The operational procedures that would call for a launch in two minutes of those ICBMs involve lightning- fast - unrealistically so) - decision-making by senior officials and presidents, who have as little as 8 minutes (or less) to make apocalyptic decisions after a 30 second briefing by the chief of STRATCOM. The recent Nuclear Posture Review, while (alas!) not proposing any relaxation in nuclear weapons operating posture (in spite of calls to do so from almost the entire planet in UNGA,(141-3) the ICNND, the Blix Report and the Canberra Commission), DID concede that a 30 second briefing followed by eight minutes max to decide the fate of the world was not really satisfactory, and admitted the need for greater presidential decision-making time. And that is kind of progress. But the only way to do that is, admitting it or not, to lower operational readiness, even if by another name.

Lowering operational readiness has indeed been pushed for by a range of high - level commissions into nuclear weapons and WMD, most recently by the Blix Commission recommendation 17) and by the ICNND who note that accidental nuclear war is not a fantasy but a terrifying reality. Lowering operating status/operational readiness has been the subject of 4 resolutions on a regular basis in the General Assembly, including in 2007 and 2008, the Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems resolution that came as a result of lobbying by this author and others and is sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Switzerland. I understand it will again be submitted in 2010, having been suspended in 2009 in order to facilitate a favourable outcome by the NPR. When adopted in 2008 it was adopted by 141-3.(with Australia voting yes) The other resolutions that refer to Operating Status are the Reducing Nuclear Dangers resolution sponsored by India, Renewed Determination sponsored by Japan and Australia, and the NAM resolution.

We've just had a series of high - level meetings on nuclear weapons, and of these the most consequential surely, has been the NPT Review Conference of May 2010 at which this author attended for week two of its four weeks, holding a workshop on operating status of nuclear
weapon systems on 13 May which was addressed by the NZ and Swiss Ambassadors, ommander Robert Green, Nancy Gallagher of University of Michigan, Steven Starr of PSR and myself.

The other truly consequential event was of course, the signature (with ratification now mired in the US Congress and utterly insane and unfactual comments being made by some republicans) - of the New START treaty between the US and Russia (who held a very good briefing about it at the NPT Review Conference which I attended).

Neither New START nor the NPT Review Conference's final declaration could be said to be exactly radical. Both are however in my view modest (if rather too modest) moves in more or less the right direction. Both have been greeted with poisonous venom by the US hard right, who seem unfortunately to set the terms of the debate especially in the US Congress who have to ratify New START. This very venom should suggest to those of a more rational mindset that perhaps the NPT Review final dec and New START have some merit even if not as much as we'd like!

Yet all that New START really does, is to lower US and Russian land-based ICBM, Bomber, and SLBM warhead numbers to 1500 (Tactical nukes are not counted, and the limits apply to operational warheads only). There is a curious counting rule whereby bombers are counted as only one warhead, in spite of the fact that a bomber can take up to 24 warheads, though bombers are not normally loaded with nuclear warheads. Still, by attributing warheads to bombers, real warhead numbers could considerably exceed 1500.

New START says nothing at all about the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems in spite of considerable lobbying on that subject by myself and others. The best we get in terms of real strategic stability and confidence building is a promise by Obama and Medvedev on the margins of the treaty negotiations to consider again the setting up of the Joint Data Exchange Centre, where US officers are to look at Russian radar screens and Russian officers are to look at US radar screens (at least, this was the original understanding), thereby making less likely miscalculations that could prove terminal. This has now been agreed to four times by both governments: we will see whether or not it will ever be a reality, and believe it when we see it.

......As for the NPT Review Conference Final Declaration, it was in the words of George Perkovitch, and Deepti Choubey, 'An incremental success'. Some commentators including early comments by ICAN were much more critical, and I confess I joined in that early criticism. I don't think this was entirely warranted (see my 'A Slightly Heretical Report On the NPT Review Conference'- (especially I don't think that it is true that the 2010 NPT Revcon final dec does not advance at all from the year 2000 final dec and is merely 'treading water'. This really is not fair.)).

I would instead point to:
--Language on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear
weapons use, that goes far toward de-legitimising the possession of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons states tried hard to remove this but failed.
--more detailed language on operational status/operational readiness, albeit watered down (Partly at the behest of Russia) from earlier drafts.
--Two clear mentions of a nuclear weapons convention both on its own, and as an 'interlocking framework of agreements', and as part of the Ban Ci moon five - point plan.
--A clearer, more unambiguous commitment to going to global nuclear zero.

These are all significant advances on the Year 2000 final declaration and the 13 points.

However (as I point out in my 'Slightly heretical report'), whatever the path may be up the mountain of global nuclear zero, we have to actually walk it. And to walk in an upward direction is more important than to debate forever which is the 'right' path.

Otherwise, even if it is not literally the 'end of the world' (which will after all still be there), it might just, if someone has enough of a bad day, be the end of everything humans find to be important including possibly ourselves.

And those are quite high enough stakes.

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