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Nuclear War Could Mean 'Extinction of the Human Race'

New report issues 'red flag about the threat to humanity' posed by nuclear weapons; calls for global disarmament

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

"A nuclear war using only a fraction of existing arsenals would produce massive casualties on a global scale—far more than we had previously believed," said Dr. Ira Helfand. (Photo: jonathan mcintosh/cc/flickr)

A war using even a small percentage of the world's nuclear weapons threatens the lives of two billion people, a new report warns.

The findings in the report issued by International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) are based on studies by climate scientists that show how nuclear war would alter the climate and agriculture, thereby threatening one quarter of the world's population with famine.

Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk? offers an updated edition to the groups' April of 2012 report, which the groups say "may have seriously underestimated the consequences of a limited nuclear war."

"A nuclear war using only a fraction of existing arsenals would produce massive casualties on a global scale—far more than we had previously believed," Dr. Ira Helfand, the report’s author and IPPNW co-president, said in a statement.

As their previous report showed, years after even a limited nuclear war, production of corn in the U.S. and China's middle season rice production would severely decline, and fears over dwindling food supplies would lead to hoarding and increases in food prices, creating further food insecurity for those already reliant on food imports.

The updated report adds that Chinese winter wheat production would plummet if such a war broke out. Based on information from new studies combining reductions in wheat, corn and rice, this new edition doubles the number of people they expect to be threatened by nuclear-war induced famine to over two billion.

"The prospect of a decade of widespread hunger and intense social and economic instability in the world’s largest country has immense implications for the entire global community, as does the possibility that the huge declines in Chinese wheat production will be matched by similar declines in other wheat producing countries," Helfand stated.

The crops would be impacted, the report explains, citing previous studies, because of the black carbon particles that would be released, causing widespread changes like cooling temperatures, decreased precipitation and decline in solar radiation.

In this scenario of famine, epidemics of infectious diseases would be likely, the report states, and could lead to armed conflict. From the report:


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Within nations where famine is widespread, there would almost certainly be food riots, and competition for limited food resources might well exacerbate ethnic and regional animosities. Among nations, armed conflict would be a very real possibility as states dependent on imports attempted to maintain access to food supplies.

While a limited nuclear war would bring dire circumstances, the impacts if the world's biggest nuclear arms holders were involved would be even worse.  "With a large war between the United States and Russia, we are talking about the possible —not certain, but possible—extinction of the human race," Helfand told Agence-France Presse.

"In this kind of war, biologically there are going to be people surviving somewhere on the planet but the chaos that would result from this will dwarf anything we've ever seen," Helfand told the news agency.

As Helfand writes, the data cited in the report "raises a giant red flag about the threat to humanity posed."

Yet, as Dr. Peter Wilk, former national executive director of PSR writes in an op-ed today, the "threat is of our own creation."

As a joint statement by 124 states delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in October stated: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances."

"Countries around the world—those who are nuclear-armed and those who are not—must work together to eliminate the threat and consequences of nuclear war," Helfand said.

“In order to eliminate this threat, we must eliminate nuclear weapons.”


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