[APPLAUSE] IRA HELFAND: Thank you for that introduction. And thank you to the Einaudi Center and the Reppy Center both for the invitation to speak here today. And thanks to all of you for coming out to hear this stuff, because the things that I want to talk to you about are frankly not particularly easy to listen to. But they are for that reason perhaps all the more important to hear about.
Really what we need to understand is that our world and everything in it that we hold precious is at terrible risk today. And it is up to us to do something about it. A generation ago, millions of people around the world understood that nuclear weapons could destroy the world, could destroy human civilization, and perhaps cause the extinction of our species. And there was an enormous movement, with millions and millions of people around the world working to end the danger of nuclear war.
Just as a simple example, I just wanted to show this. I came across this when I was getting ready for a lecture to a group of doctors and medical students. This is the oath which Soviet medical students used to take in the 1980s, "recognizing the danger which nuclear weaponry presents for mankind, I promise to struggle tirelessly for peace and for the prevention of nuclear war." The concern was so pervasive that in the basic oath that young doctors took, they promised they would do something to try to prevent nuclear war.
That movement was enormously important and it was enormously successful. We ended the Cold War arms race. We ended the Cold War. We got rid of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons around the world. And we got through the decade of the 1980s without a nuclear war by the skin of our teeth, but we did.
Unfortunately, when the Cold War ended, all of us began to act as if the danger of nuclear war had gone away. And it hasn't. And so it is important that we take stock of where we are today, what the extent of the danger is, what the extent of our knowledge about the danger is, and what we can do about it. And I'd like to just show you very briefly a film that won a PSR Award for Best Short Film last year on this subject.
- When I say nuclear weapons, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
- Bombs. Like really big bombs is the first thing.
- Yeah. Big bombs.
- World War II.
- Mass destruction.
- When it explodes, the--
- You know?
- The mushroom.
- The-- exactly.
- Blowing [BLEEP] up.
- Yeah. Mutually assured destruction.
- An atomic bomb. Yeah, dude.
- How many nuclear weapons do you think the whole world has right now?
- In the whole world?
- I hear it's a lot.
- Few hundred.
- I have no idea.
- I said 7.
- Oh, I thought you said 70.
- No, I said 7.
- Oh. Yeah, one--
That makes sense. All right I'll go with 7.
- I have no idea.
- Like 10?
- I think more.
- We have over 15,000 nuclear weapons.
- [BLEEP] Oh, wow.
- 15,000? Why?
- That's scary.
- Who we blowing up? Mars?
- It's power, right? It's too much power.
- But I don't understand why you need it.
- You know, there's 15,000 on the planet. And none of them are in use right now, but the fact that they're in human hands is alarming. I mean, mistakes can be made.
- We accidentally dropped two nuclear bombs on ourselves in North Carolina. And each of those bombs were 250 times the power of Hiroshima and would have spread lethal doses of radiation to as far as New York City.
- How do you put-- how does that happen--
- [BLEEP] Lost it.
- But you know what I mean? Like it doesn't just slip through your fingers.
- Oh, it's gone.
- Like, that's unbelievable.
- The fact that we accidentally dropped two, who's to say that that mistake won't happen again?
- How much do you think we spend every year on nuclear weapons?
- In America.
- Millions. Millions, maybe billions.
- I just know it's going to be too much, way too much.
- Right now, every hour that passes, $2.2 million of taxpayers' money is going directly towards nuclear weapons.
- That's crazy.
- $2.2 million per hour.
- That's pretty mind-blowing.
- Every hour that passes.
- Every hour.
- I knew it was like too much.
- On nuclear weapons, specifically.
- How much-- how much do you make hourly, $15 an hour?
- Don't say that. We don't have to go there.
- He's a valet.
- We don't have to go there.
- What was it-- what was it again? Every what?
- $2.2 million every hour.
- Every hour. Oh my god.
- Man. There are so many things that that money can go to.
- It's not just the money, but it's they--
- The time.
- We'll use the time and the energy to do other things.
- The effort to do all that. They can use to do something that's more beneficial to--
- Yeah. Exactly. People can't eat bombs.
- And they can't eat money, you know?
- It's not needed. We don't need to invest that much money in something that shouldn't even exist.
- I think it raises a question about being aware.
- Like what the [BLEEP]? I didn't know about that until just now.
- We all need to know that this affects every single one of us.
- The planet.
- It's the fact that you possess such an ability to exterminate like so many lives. We all have to be concerned about it.
- Nowhere near as many people know enough about this subject. I think it's as simple as just telling people about it, telling people the numbers.
- We need to educate people on the situation that's happening firsthand.
- Yeah. It is going to affect [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah.
- I guess our kids.
- People don't know the first clue about nuclear war.
- We better start thinking another way to go forward.
IRA HELFAND: So I love this little film. I think there are two really important messages that are quite intertwined. One is that young people when they know about this stuff are very disturbed, very concerned, and very anxious to do something about it. But the other part of the message is that young people today are profoundly uneducated about this issue. You heard the range of their guesstimates of how many weapons there are in the world. I think the high number was 70-- maybe that was the mistaken number that they thought-- not 15,000.
And this is not unique to this particular experience. Jonathan Schell wrote the great book-- series of books, but in particular The Fate of the Earth, which helped to sort of catalyze our understanding of the nuclear danger back in the 1980s. He was teaching a seminar at Wesleyan back in the early 2000s, an undergraduate seminar, students who had chosen to take a course about nuclear weaponry. And on the first day he, as the first assignment, just handed out pieces of paper and said, please write down on this how many nuclear weapons you think there are in the world.
And the range for that class of very bright students who were interested in the subject was 0 to 10. Nobody thought there were more than 10 in the world. It's not because these kids are stupid. It's because they've never been taught about this stuff.
And so that's what our job is, to, again, educate the public about what's going to happen if nuclear weapons are used, to educate them about how many weapons there are in the world, and to educate them about what we can do to stop this from happening. So what I want to do today is first just describe to you a little bit what the consequences of nuclear weapons could be. And there are basically three categories, nuclear terrorism, limited nuclear war, and large-scale nuclear war.
Let me start by talking to you about nuclear terrorism. To the extent that anyone pays any attention to this issue at all, this is what they tend to focus on. And it's a legitimate concern. This is a real problem.
We know that there are about 2,000 tons of bomb-making material in the world today. It's distributed in over 40 countries. It only takes about 20 or 30 pounds to make a bomb of the strength that destroyed Hiroshima. There are also some nuclear weapons which are possibly unaccounted for. And there are real security concerns about the Russian arsenal and the Pakistani arsenal in particular.
We also know that terrorist groups have been trying for at least 20 years to get their hands on this kind of material and have been actively pursuing the ability to build nuclear weapons. And we know that if a terrorist either got a pre-formed bomb or got enough fissile material to build a bomb, it would be very easy to build it once they got the fissile material. You can go online and get the directions on how to do it.
There's a real chance that such a weapon would be used. So we published a study in The British Medical Journal back in 2002 that looked at what would happen if a small by modern standards, Hiroshima-sized bomb, about 15,000 tons of TNT, were detonated. The scenario we chose was that the terrorists built this bomb and mailed it to the United States. They just put it on a cargo ship and programmed it to explode as the boat carrying it approached the Port of New York before it had a chance to go through customs and be detected.
We're familiar, I think, most of us with the image of Hiroshima. This is what would happen to a large section of any city that were attacked with a bomb of this size. In the case of our scenario, even though the bomb is detonated over the water so that much of the explosive force is dissipated and not directed directly at the city itself, the explosion kills about 44 million people-- excuse me, 44,000 people outright. And another 10,000 people are exposed to a lethal dose of radiation emanating from the bomb at the moment of detonation. In addition, about 250,000 people downwind receive lethal doses of radiation from the fallout. And another 1.5 million are exposed to fallout.
So the death toll from this terrorist bomb going off in the Port of New York could be something on the order of 250,000 to 300,000 people. And to put that into perspective, during all of World War II, total US fatalities were about 400,000. A similar number of people dying in a single attack in the course of a week.
The economic destruction caused by this is really incalculable. There was a study done back in the late 1990s that looked at a terrorist attack on New York. It posited that the explosion went off not in New York, but across the river in New Jersey part of the Port Authority. The estimate was that it would cause $1 trillion worldwide in damage.
I think it's a tremendous underestimate. A bomb that went off in New York itself would take out some of the most expensive real estate in the world. But even more important, it would totally disrupt the economic life of the entire planet. The financial system would be exposed to an enormous shock. International trade would halt.
People who may remember after September 11th people just stopped flying on airplanes for a period of months. The same kind of thing would happen to all kinds of international commerce in the aftermath of this kind of terrorist attack. Ports around the world and airports around the world would shut down because people would be frightened that their city would be the next target. So we're probably talking about an economic loss in the trillions of dollars, a really unparalleled catastrophe and something which could happen to us.
But this is the least of the dangers that nuclear weapons pose. Let's consider for a minute the possibility of a limited nuclear war. We have focused a lot of thinking on this on the case of South Asia, the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan.
Both of these countries have nuclear arsenals. They have gone to war three times since independence in the late 1940s. And there has been daily conflict on the line of demarcation between their forces in Kashmir over the last three years.
I think no one would be surprised if fighting there escalated into a larger conflict. No one would be surprised if there were another major terrorist attack in South Asia that led to fighting between India and Pakistan. So what would happen?
Well, the scenario that we considered, we assumed that each of them used about 50 again relatively small, Hiroshima-sized bombs at urban targets in the other country. This is only about half of their current arsenal. And it's about 1/2 of 1% of the world's nuclear arsenals. But this very limited regional conflict would have devastating consequences in South Asia.
Something like 20 million to in some studies as many as 30 million people would die in the first week from the explosions, from the fires, from the radiation. And again to put this into perspective, total fatalities worldwide during World War II were about 50 million, so we would be talking about a roughly comparable death toll. But this occurred in the course of a week, not over the course of the eight years that World War II raged.
As mind-boggling as these direct effects in South Asia are, they are only a small part of the total picture, because the greater damage would be done by the climate disruption. The 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs detonating over urban targets in South Asia would release about 6 and 1/2 million tons of black soot into the upper levels of the atmosphere. And we have looked at what would happen, again using a relatively comparative-- excuse me, conservative model assuming that only 5 million tons went up.
That causes worldwide climate disruption. It blocks out the sun and drops temperatures across the planet. The temperature drop is about 1.3 degrees centigrade. May not sound like a very significant amount of change in temperature, until we look at it compared to the global warming that's taken place in the last 130 years that we are all so concerned about.
This graph, the blue line shows all of the warming that's taking place since the 1880s, about 7/10 of a degree. The red line on the right shows what happens in three days after this limited war in South Asia. The change in temperature more than twice as great in magnitude, and one which would have profound impact on food production around the world.
It would shorten the growing season. This map, which is kind of hard to show-- to read, rather, from where you are with the lights on, but basically all the areas that are in blue showed shortening of the growing season. And it amounts to 20 to 30 days in some of the most important food-growing areas in the world.
There's also a significant drop in precipitation around the world. When the air cools off, less water is evaporated from oceans to fall back as rain and snow. And again, I'm sorry about this. This slide is hard to see. But there are three red boxes there. They show areas where the precipitation falls by more than 50%.
These effects are not just for a single season. They persist for at least a decade. And the most recent examination of this scenario suggests that some significant climate effects may persist for up to 26 years.
As a result of this, there is a very significant decline in food production around the world. We have studied mainly a few major grain crops in the United States and China, which are the world's two largest producers of grain. This graph shows the effect on corn production here in the United States, the world's largest producer of corn. Over a whole decade, the average decline is about 12% to 15%. The worst year turns out actually to be 5 years after this war, when the decline is closer to 30%.
Similarly, we looked at rice production in China. And again, the graph here shows what happens to middle-season rice, which is the largest rice crop and the most important grain crop in China. It goes down about 15% to 17% over a decade. In the case of Chinese rice, the most severe decline in production takes place early on, when production goes down up to 30% for several years.
It's not spread out evenly over China. Some provinces, the ones that are shown in light green on this map, actually experience a slight increase in their rice production. But all the areas that are shown in various shades of tan and brown have a very significant decline in their rice crop.
And in some areas, it fails completely. This shows the effect on the rice crop in Heilongjiang province in Northeastern China. It's the home to 37 million people. And in the first year after a nuclear war in South Asia, thousands of miles away, the rice crop fails completely. There's no rice grown at all. This is a staple food for 37 million people and it is not there.
We have more recently been able to look at a couple of other key crops in China, corn and spring-- excuse me, winter wheat, which is the second-largest grain crop in China, and very significant results. As mentioned, in the case of rice, shown here in the middle, it's about 17% decline for a full decade. In the case of corn, which is very important now in China-- it's actually a larger crop than rice, but it's not mainly used for human consumption, it's mainly used to raise animals, which have become an increasingly important part of the Chinese diet-- 16% decline in production. And most disturbingly, winter wheat, the second-largest grain and the staple for most of northern China, declines by 31% for a full decade.
We are not in a position on this planet today to absorb this kind of decline in food production. Grain reserves as of last month, January of this year, amounted to only about 80 days of consumption worldwide. That means that in the granaries of the world, enough grain is stored to feed the planet for 80 days if production stops. This reserve, which is well below the historical norms of 120 to 130 days back in the '70s and '80s, this reserve will not provide a significant or adequate buffer in the event of a significant decline in food production.
In addition, we have a situation in the world today where there are huge numbers of people who are already malnourished. The most recent estimates are about 795 million people around the world who are malnourished today. They don't get enough to eat. These people on average get about 1800 calories, which is just enough to maintain the body mass of an average-sized adult and to allow that person to do a little bit of physical work, to grow food or to gather food. All of these people would be a terrible risk if there were a 10% to 15% to 30% decline in the food available to them.
And we do need to understand that it's not just the available food, the food that's grown, but the accessible food that we need to take into account. Most of our understanding about the dynamics of famine come from the work of Amartya Sen, the great Nobel economist at Harvard. And his work focused on the Bengal famine in the early 1940s. It took place in 1943.
That year, food production was only 5% down from the historical average. But that year, the Japanese had invaded Burma, which was where Bengal got its rice from in times of shortage. There was a concern that they would not be able to get rice from Burma to cover the shortfall.
And there was a panic and people began to hoard food. And the price of rice rose by 500%. And while the available food only went down by 5%, the accessible food, the food that people could actually access and put on their table, went down many times more than that. And 3 million people died.
Now, under the circumstances that we are projecting from a limited war in South Asia, this kind of famine dynamic would take place across the planet. There would be global hoarding. Countries that normally export food would stop doing that. They would hold on to their food to feed their own people. And as a result of that, the price of food would skyrocket around the world.
We have seen this on a more limited scale repeatedly over the last 15 years in response to various droughts in various parts of the world. Exporting-- grain exports were suspended by various countries. The price of grain went up very significantly. It lasted for a period of months.
In this case, it would not last for a period of months. It would last for a decade. And this has led us to believe that a very large portion of the human race would face starvation, 795-- excuse me, 795 million people who are malnourished today, another 300 million people who live in countries where the nutrition is good but where much of the food is imported. And this includes some very wealthy countries, like Japan and South Korea and Taiwan, most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
And then there's the case of China, where there are about a billion people who have not shared very much in the economic advancement that has taken place in China over the last 30 years, who remain quite poor. They are receiving on average adequate nutrition today. But given the enormous shock to Chinese food production that we are projecting, I think this entire group of people would also be at risk.
And this has led us to conclude that up to 2 billion people worldwide could face death by starvation in the event of a limited nuclear war confined to one section of the globe. This is an event unprecedented in human history. We have never seen anything like the death of 1/3 of the human population in a single decade. And that is the danger that we face from a limited nuclear war.
But that's only the middle range. A war between the United States and Russia would be even greater. And I think we need to think about that today.
For 25 years since the end of the Cold War, we've been told we don't need to worry about this. US and Russia aren't enemies anymore. They'll never go to war. The weapons won't be used. Hard to understand why they've maintained the arsenals if there was no chance they would ever be used. But that's the argument that we've been given.
Events in Syria and even more so in Ukraine over the last several years have I think shown how incredibly false these assurances were. It is clear that the United States and Russia could become involved in conflict again. And it is equally clear from the nuclear saber rattling that has taken place on both sides over the last two years, that should such conflict occur, it could escalate to nuclear war.
And so let's consider for a few minutes what the effects of the use of those weapons would be. 95% of the weapons in the world's nuclear arsenals are in the US and Russian arsenal. About 2,000 of them are on hair-trigger alert. They can be launched in a matter of minutes and strike their targets a half an hour later.
I want to start by describing what happens to a single city in a modern nuclear attack I'm going to use the example of New York. And for the purposes of discussion, I'm going to use a model.
What would probably happen to New York in the event of a war between the United States and Russia today is that it would be hit by something between 15 and 20 nuclear weapons, each about 1/2 a megaton, 1/2 of a million tons of TNT. That's about 30, 40 times bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
It's very hard for me to describe and for you to understand the description of 15 bombs going off all at the same time, so I'm going to use the model of a single explosion of 20 megatons, 20 million tons of TNT. This is more megatonnage that would actually fall on New York. The destruction which I will describe to you in a minute is actually an underestimate, because 15 to 20 bombs spread out over the whole metropolitan area would cause more destruction. But I think this model gives us an adequate appreciation of what we would face.
Within a thousandth of a second of the detonation of this bomb, a fireball would form reaching out for two miles in every direction, four miles across. Within this area, the temperature would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the surface of the sun. And everything would be vaporized. The buildings, the people, the trees, the upper level of the Earth itself would disappear.
To a distance of 4 miles in every direction the heat would be so intense-- excuse me, the blast generated by the explosion would create winds in excess of 600 miles per hour. And the blast pressures would be greater than 25 pounds per square inch. Mechanical forces of this magnitude destroy anything that people build. Underground shelters collapse when they're exposed to pressures of this magnitude.
To a distance of six miles in every direction, the heat would be so intense that automobiles would melt. To a distance of 10 miles in every direction, the winds would still be in excess of 200 miles per hour, the blast pressures greater than 10 pounds per square inch. Forces of that magnitude will level masonry buildings, wood frame buildings. A modern building like this would see all the floors, all the walls swept out. A steel skeleton would be left behind.
To a distance of 16 miles in every direction, the heat would still be so intense that everything flammable would burn. Cloth, paper, plastic, gasoline, heating oil, wood, it would all ignite, hundreds of thousands of fires, which would coalesce over the next half hour into a firestorm 32 miles across, covering over 800 square miles.
Within this area, the temperatures would rise to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the oxygen would be consumed and every living thing would die. In the case of New York City, we're talking about some 15 million people dead in a half an hour. And if this were part of a large-scale war between the United States and Russia, this same level of destruction would be visited on every major city in both countries.
A study which we released in 2002 examined a scenario in which only 300 warheads in the Russian arsenal of the 8,000 which they hold-- 300 get through to urban targets in the United States. And we found that 75 million to 100 million people would die in the first half-hour.
In addition, the entire economic infrastructure which we depend on would be destroyed. The banking system, the electric grid, the public health system, the food distribution system, everything, it would just be gone. We need these systems in place to survive. We are not hunter-gatherers. We're not subsistence farmers. We depend on an intact civilization and it would not be there.
And over the months following this attack, the vast majority of the people who did not die in the initial explosions and fires would also die from starvation, from exposure the following winter, from radiation poisoning, and from epidemic disease, all told between the two countries, maybe a 1/2 billion people.
Beyond the areas of conflagration, there would be enormous numbers of people who were wounded, who'd require intense medical care. That medical care would not be available. As I mentioned, the electric grid would be down. There would be no power to run EKG machines or x-ray machines or operating theaters.
The vast majority of the hospitals in the country would be destroyed. Most of the doctors and nurses in the country would be dead. Most of the medical supplies would be used up. The people who were left would face an incredibly difficult environment. And the vast majority of the people who were injured would get no medical care at all.
But again, these direct effects, if you will, are only a part of the story. A limited war in South Asia puts 5 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. A war between the United States and Russia, involving just those weapons which will still be left in their arsenals when the New START Treaty is fully implemented next year, That War puts 150 million tons of debris into the atmosphere.
And that drops temperatures not 1.3 degrees centigrade but on average 8 degrees centigrade across the entire planet. In the interior regions of North America, the areas shown there in dark blue, and the interior regions of Eurasia the temperatures drop by up to 30 degrees centigrade. We have not seen conditions on this planet that cold in 18,000 years, since the coldest moment of the last ice age.
In the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, there would be three days-- excuse me, three years without a single day free of frost. The temperature would go below freezing for at least some portion of every single day. That means that ecosystems would collapse. Food production would stop. The vast majority of the human race would starve to death. And it is possible that we would become extinct as a species.
Now, it is important to understand this is not just some nightmare scenario that I have cooked up to ruin your afternoon. Even if some conflict like Ukraine does not escalate into a nuclear war, there is the ever-present danger that we will have a war by accident. And we know of at least five occasions since 1979 when either Moscow or Washington prepared to launch nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it itself was already under attack.
In addition, we are now told by military experts that we need to be very concerned about the possibility that terrorists will be able to carry out a cyber-attack and actually cause the launch of either a US or Russian nuclear missile, thereby triggering a nuclear war between the two countries. This is a danger that looms over us and which we are ignoring almost completely.
So why am I talking to you about this stuff tonight? Because while this is the future that will be if we do not act, it is not the future that needs to be. Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature. They are not an act of God.
They are implements which we have built with our own hands and we know how to take them apart. We've dismantled more than 40,000 of them since the end of the Cold War. We know how to do this.
What has been lacking is the political will. All of the nuclear weapons states claim that they seek a world free of nuclear weapons. In fact, none of them are pursuing that goal at this point. All nine of them are actively modernizing and upgrading their nuclear arsenals, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. The expenditure here in the United States is projected at over $1 trillion over the next 30 years. And these plans have been formulated by President Obama, who put himself forward as the champion of nuclear abolition at the beginning of his term in office.
Fortunately, there is, however, growing in the world a very strong movement to oppose this situation. It's led primarily by the nations which do not have nuclear weapons. They have held three large international governmental conferences over the last three years to discuss the kind of material that I've presented to you today. We presented much of the material at these conferences focused on the medical consequences of nuclear war and the likelihood that nuclear war could happen.
And the outcome of these three conferences was a pledge, issued by the Austrian government at the last conference in Vienna in December of '14, in which the Austrian government pledged that it would seek to close the loophole in international law, which does not currently outlaw nuclear weapons. That has been taken up now by the United Nations, which passed a resolution supporting this by an overwhelming majority this past fall, and has set up a process for moving forward with this.
There are a number of steps that we can take in the interim. And let me go through some of these very briefly. These steps are supported not only by countries around the world, but also by a consensus among the high priests, if you will, of the nuclear faith here in the United States. And it cuts across party lines.
At the level of nuclear experts, there's not a divide. The most outspoken people calling for the end of the nuclear era have been four prominent architects of our previous nuclear policy, two Republicans and two Democrats, Kissinger and Shultz on the Republican side, Nunn and Perry on the Democratic side. So at that level, there is a consensus and there is the possibility of bipartisan agreement.
Some of the steps that they have signaled we could take, we can de-alert our nuclear weapons so they can't be launched in 15 minutes. This is a vestige of the Cold War, when we were expecting a bolt-out-of-the-blue strike from the other side and we kept our weapons ready to go. This is insanely dangerous and just increases the danger that there'll be an accidental launch.
We can cut down on the number of deployed weapons. The US and Russia each have about 8,000 warheads. About 1,550 of those are deployed. The US Pentagon has said, we don't need this many weapons. Even by our approach, which calls for us to retain the ability to destroy the world, we only need 900. So that's another simple step. The US and Russia could cut their arsenals down to 1,000 or 900 weapons.
We could ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This was signed in 1996 banning all nuclear tests. It's been ratified by 144 countries. But 8 more countries need to ratify it for it to go into effect.
And the principal obstacle to that happening is the United States, which rejected this treaty in the United States Senate at the first attempt to ratify it in 1999. And it has not been brought up for ratification again since then, because the Republican Party in Congress has made it clear that they will block this. But that is something we could do.
We could negotiate a treaty to cut off the production of fissile material, the highly enriched uranium and plutonium used to build nuclear weapons. As I said in the very first slides, there are over 2,000 tons of this material in the world today, besides the stuff that's already fabricated into nuclear weapons. And we're making more of it every day. There should be a treaty in place to stop the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
The United States could take a unilateral step, withdrawing its tactical weapons from Europe. We have about 200 nuclear bombs stationed in Europe, again a vestige of the Cold War, very concerning to the Russians, something which makes them very edgy and makes them fear our intentions. They serve no useful military purpose. They're just something that sits there, making the situation more dangerous.
And most importantly, we can seek the big goal, a world free of nuclear weapons. There has formed around the world an international campaign, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. It was started by the physicians movement in our effort to reach a much broader audience. And it now includes over 490 NGO organizations in 95 countries around the world.
The focus of this is a treaty to ban nuclear weapons that I mentioned a short while ago. And negotiations for this will commence in an indirect sort of way in 10 days in Geneva, where the United Nations has set up an open-ended working group to explore how to move the situation forward, how to get the nine nuclear weapons states, which tenaciously hold onto their nuclear arsenals, to change their policies.
And the strategy that is being adopted by large numbers of non-nuclear weapons states is basically a name and shame strategy. It is to create a new treaty, which bans nuclear weapons, which defines the possession of nuclear weapons to be illegal under international law, and which calls, therefore, on the nuclear weapons states to negotiate a detailed nuclear weapons convention amongst themselves, which will provide the precise, verifiable, enforceable steps for the dismantling of their nuclear arsenals.
This movement has gotten-- is starting to get a lot of support. The International Committee of the Red Cross has endorsed the ban treaty. The American Medical Association has endorsed the ban treaty. The World Medical Association has endorsed the ban treaty. Church groups around the world, including the Pope, have endorsed the ban treaty.
The United States government is doing everything it possibly can to stop this treaty from going forward. And I think that's the challenge before us today. We have a very, very bald choice. We can either maintain the status quo and hope that we have good luck, or we can understand that it is good luck alone which has kept us from having nuclear war over the last 70 years. And if we are serious about providing for the security of our children, we need to get rid of these horrible weapons before they are used.
In medicine, we have a saying that if there is no treatment for disease, no cure, then only prevention is available to us. There is no way of curing the world if there's a nuclear war. We have to prevent that from happening. And do trust me on this.
I want to stop and throw the floor open-- I've spoken longer than I meant to and I apologize for that-- for comments and questions. I also before I do so-- I'm just going to leave this slide up while we're doing this. This is the websites of Physicians for Social Responsibility, of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and for the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, all of which have a lot of very useful information for people who would like more detailed information about this, and also the Twitter site for PSR's work on nuclear weapons. So let me stop here.
SPEAKER: Let's thank Dr. Helfand before we open it up for questions.
It also gives me an opportunity to fill in my very brief introduction and thank the co-sponsors of this event, which include the Center for Transformative Action here at Cornell, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and Physicians for Social Responsibility itself. And then Dr. Helfand said he would field his own questions, so please.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for the presentation. We cannot speak on behalf of other government, but certainly we can reflect more on our government. And we cannot go back in time to Truman days. We only dwell on the past eight years.
As you know, Obama, partly granted the Nobel Peace Prize because of his disarmament vision, that he advocated during campaign, among other things, and after that, after he became president, not only started this [INAUDIBLE] city complex and the infrastructure, but also he refused initially when he had some control on the Congress to put CTBT, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, really for ratification. As you said, nothing would happen without the United States ratifying that treaty.
And I can go on and on. Obviously Obama had a complete change of mind concerning disarmament and the increased investment. And as you said, there would be possibility of $1 trillion in the next two to three decades of revitalization of weapons.
Why? Do you have any reflection what on Earth in his mind, even though against the advice of the Pentagon, advice of those prominent politicians you mentioned, among other thing, and the overwhelming support of the average citizenship? Why?
IRA HELFAND: It's a difficult question and a very good one. I think President Obama's performance on this issue has been a profound, profound disappointment to people all around the world who took great heart when he said in Prague just three months into his presidency that he sought the security of a world free of nuclear weapons. He did add "perhaps not in my own lifetime" in the next breath. But we all tended to focus on the first part of that sentence.
I don't know what Obama's thinking about this has been. He understands nuclear weapons I think better than any president of the nuclear age. He certainly seemed to understand them better than any of the candidates running for president in this current election cycle. And despite that, while president he has not done anywhere near what he could have.
This is a pattern which we see all the time. When people are in office, they tend to act as though they can control these weapons. And when they leave office, they get much more upset about the fact that these weapons are being controlled by other people.
And I think this may simply be the ultimate hubris, that the people who have control over the arsenals delude themselves into thinking that they're in control. There's a long list of generals who were part of this enterprise, who were commanders of our strategic forces, who now are our strong critics of our nuclear policy and favor the abolition of these weapons, because when they look at these weapons in the hands of other people, they're fearful that they'll be used.
I think that has to be a part of it. I think the rest of it is that, like most of us, he doesn't really believe that they're as dangerous as they are. And this goes a lot to our problem in dealing with everyone.
You can know intellectually what will happen if the weapons are used. You can know intellectually that we've come very close to using them on many occasions and that the conditions exist whereby they could be used in the future. And you can still act as though that's not true.
It's a form of denial. It's the way our minds work. Those of us in medicine see this all the time with our patients who engage in self-destructive behavior and just sort of think it won't happen to them. And when they get the diagnosis of lung cancer after smoking for 40 years, they're genuinely shocked that it has happened to them.
So this is a challenge for those amongst us with the training in psychology and psychiatry. How do we get through to our leaders and get them to not only take this information in, but to keep it in the part of their brain that affects their day-to-day decision-making? What we need is a president who wakes up every morning and says, the greatest danger facing my people today is the existence of nuclear arsenals around the world and that's what I have to work on today. And we've never had one. And I don't know how we're-- I'm not sure how we're going to get there.
But that's our challenge, to create a climate where people running for president have to have that perspective, where people who are sitting in the White House know that if they act in that way, they're going to be supported by a population which is demanding that they take that kind of action. Please.
But I just wanted to ask whether you-- because I do agree with your [INAUDIBLE] nuclear holocaust [INAUDIBLE] deny it, that how-- you mentioned [INAUDIBLE]. Actually, I think the [INAUDIBLE] the nuclear [INAUDIBLE]. But they're having some-- I guess some [INAUDIBLE] that that's just not the case with certain states, particularly with the rogue states who are quite [INAUDIBLE] concerned with the own survival, but occasionally with [INAUDIBLE], or those who are actually convinced that their survival cannot be guaranteed by the [INAUDIBLE] in place by the United States [INAUDIBLE].
I'm thinking [INAUDIBLE] North Korea. I guess you could also [INAUDIBLE] Israel. And in the [INAUDIBLE] United States [INAUDIBLE] potential [INAUDIBLE] within East Asia, the Japanese [INAUDIBLE]. And I wondered what your opinion is on the diplomatic complexity of such issues and how you would address that [INAUDIBLE].
IRA HELFAND: Thank you. That's a very good question. And you have a lot of status.
AUDIENCE: Could you repeat the question please?
IRA HELFAND: The question boiled down-- and forgive me if I oversimplify. But basically, there are a lot of countries that have nuclear weapons, nine. Some of them, North Korea and Israel in particular, have seemed to identify the nuclear arsenals with their survival, either of the state or the regime. And I would add Pakistan to that list, by the way.
And how do we deal with that situation? How do we get these countries to think about giving up their nuclear weapons?
Several things to say about this. First of all, we tend to focus on North Korea, previously on Iran, the rogue states. Very important. I will come back to that in a second.
But the real problem isn't the rogue states. The real problem is the United States and Russia, which are the ones that are going to destroy the world. And I think we need to start identifying ourselves as rogue states.
And I don't see that as a rhetorical-- as a rhetorical sort of thing. I think we really need to understand that we are behaving in a profoundly irresponsible way.
But for many of the nuclear weapons states, the possession of nuclear weapons is not really because they think that their survival is in danger, except by nuclear attack from the other side. So if both sides get rid of the nuclear weapons, there's no problem.
Nuclear weapons are held by the US and Russia because they make us more powerful. We say that we hold them only to deter against nuclear aggression. But in fact, we have threatened to use these weapons under many circumstances where the other side didn't have nuclear weapons.
We threatened to use nuclear weapons against China during Korea. We threatened to use them and planned to use them in Vietnam. President Carter, one of the better presidents on this issue, threatened to use them during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. George Bush explicitly refused to take the use of nuclear weapons off the table in the lead up to the Iraq war.
As one very, very bright nuclear activist in New York City once said, we haven't exploded a weapon since Nagasaki, but we use them all the time. We use them to bully the world. And I think that's what the Russians do and it's what the Chinese do and it's what the Brits and the French do.
There are other countries, though, that have a different approach, which is they truly believe, with some reason, that their national survival or the survival of the current regime is at risk. Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea I think fall into this category. And it is going to be particularly difficult to get them to agree to get rid of their arsenals.
We are going to have to address the security concerns that they have in order for that to happen. And it's going to be part of the process. We are going to have to work out arrangements in South Asia and in the Middle East that make these countries comfortable enough to give up nuclear arsenals.
This is not going to be easy. But there just isn't an alternative. If we don't get rid of the weapons, then what I described today is going to happen. And so it's not a question of, can we do this? That's a question, but it's not a relevant question, because we either can or we can't. The only question worth asking is, how do we do this? And that's the one that we have to pose to ourselves. How do we move forward on this?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. I was wondering why you thought it was more likely for a nuclear [INAUDIBLE] Russian than between the US and China.
IRA HELFAND: I don't think it's more likely the US and Russia. I think that the effects would be much more catastrophic, because the Chinese arsenal is much smaller than the Russian arsenal.
But having said that, that's the main point. There probably is a greater risk of the US and Russia, because we confront each other over such a broad array of issues, and because the leadership in Russia today seems to have a particularly poor understanding of what's at risk with nuclear weapons.
The Chinese historically have been reluctant possessors of nuclear weapons. They came relatively late. They could have built an enormous nuclear arsenal and chose not to. They only have a few hundred warheads. They certainly have the economic wherewithal to build 10,000 and they've chosen not to. And they have indicated all along that they would get rid of their arsenal if the US and Russia did the same.
And I think that while that view isn't quite as well appreciated in Beijing today as it has been in the past-- there's been some stirrings within China of expanding the role of nuclear weapons in their arsenal-- it's nothing compared to what's going on in Russia, where there's just been this unbelievably disturbing looseness in the conversation about nuclear weapons. Putin has threatened to use them repeatedly in the last several years, something which we didn't think would happen ever again.
The Russians have changed their military doctrine. At one point, Russia had a no-first-use policy explicitly. They would not use nuclear weapons first. Now they talk about using nuclear weapons first and using them early in the event of a conflict with NATO.
It's called-- I'm sorry, I'm going to block on the term they're giving to it. But essentially, the idea is that if there's a conflict with NATO, they would use nuclear weapons very early on to deescalate the crisis-- interesting turn of phrase-- to try to convince NATO to back off. The problem is that the war gaming that has been done, at least back in the '80s and '90s, every single time the conflict between NATO and Russia involved the use of even a single nuclear weapon, every single war game that we ever had it escalated to full-scale nuclear war. And so this notion that somehow the early use of a single nuclear weapon to deter NATO would end the conflict just isn't supported by what we know to be the behavior patterns of the military on both sides.
AUDIENCE: You have terribly frightened me.
IRA HELFAND: Good.
AUDIENCE: And my questions does not mean it's actually happened. But I am curious about the figures. How do we know even to one significant figure how many nuclear weapons the US has, how many Russia has, how many Pakistan has, Israel, India, China?
IRA HELFAND: The US and Russian arsenals, there's a fair amount of transparency at this point among the major nuclear weapons states. The US, Russia, we've declared. We've allowed inspections. I think there's a pretty comfortable feeling that we know the exact number, actually.
When we're talking about some of the other countries, like India and Pakistan and Israel, where there is not that kind of transparency, the estimates are sort of based on the best that people can come up with in terms of what we know about their nuclear production facilities, how much fissile material we know they have used in their process. And it's a consensus of experts.
The numbers that I use usually come from the Federation of American Scientists. Hans Kristensen works on this, puts out an estimate for them every year. And others around the world who have looked at it come up with very similar numbers. There's some-- among those arsenals, there's some question about the size and also the exact nature.
For example, we don't know if the Pakistanis and the Indians have significant numbers of hydrogen bombs. We think some of their weapons are hydrogen bombs. But we're not sure how many are.
Over there, and then I'll move this way. Please.
AUDIENCE: I'm very worried about, as you know, what's happening in the Middle East. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I really wanted to be here today to hear you speak, because I just think it's just a ticking bomb. And it's not just what's happening in Syria. It's also Israel and the Palestinian cause. Israel keeps saying, if we don't take care of things that they're going to go ahead and take care of things themselves unilaterally. And they've said that many, many times.
So take for instance the negotiations with Iran, the whole deal with the nuclear power. Well, Israel's not happy about that. So I'm thinking about what's happening there and the whole thing with Syria. And I see something really bad happening. I'm really worried.
And it's not just one country. It's all these different countries and all these different interests. And there's no solution with Syria, with none of the politicians that are running for president. And that really concerns me. And I don't know who would start the war, but there's a lot of players involved. And so that's one thought.
And the other thought is, you said something very interesting before, which I didn't think about is the alert-- I'm sorry. I'm not very technical. But the alert on the nuclear weapon, I found that very interesting in terms of taking away that instant-- for it to happen instantly, because we do have all this terrorism and all the sort of technological ability now to do things without somebody else knowing. So I think if we were to start somewhere-- because obviously countries are not going to ban their weaponry tomorrow. But one thing that we could do right now is that alert system, so this way if something goes wrong, we can catch it.
IRA HELFAND: I mean, taking our weapons off high alert is one of the most obvious, simple things that we can do. And it is one of the most disappointing things about President Obama. He has resisted repeated efforts to get him to do that.
And it's something which would not in any way undermine US security, if we did it even unilaterally. But certainly, we could take some of our weapons off high alert and challenge the Russians to follow and get them all off in a very short period of time. That's easy to do. The resistance to this is hard to understand.
The Middle East is a horrible mess at this point and it almost defies description in terms of trying to figure out what the sides are, because there are so many of them. I would say that in terms of nuclear war, I don't think it's the key place that we need to worry about at the moment. The Iran deal has been an enormous achievement. And it has tended to defuse that situation some. And the Israelis who are not happy with that deal have really quieted down their rhetoric substantially since the deal was signed and now that it's going into effect.
Doesn't mean that it's not a dangerous place. And the Saudis and the Turks and the Egyptians are all still very nervous about Iran and are all considering building nuclear weapons if at some point Iran seems to be repudiating the deal. So it's potentially a very dangerous place.
But the places that I worry about most are South Asia, India-Pakistan, and the US-Russia. And I think that it speaks-- and I emphasize that because I think it does speak somewhat to the solution, which I think has to start with the largest nuclear weapons states. The US and Russia have to make a fundamental change in what they are doing about this issue if there's going to be any hope of the rest of the nuclear weapons states following along.
You're side by side. You flip a coin to who goes first.
AUDIENCE: I'm finding myself very drawn to the Bernie Sanders campaign for president. But I'm wondering if you have a handle on what's his level of understanding of the kind of analysis you've presented so effectively to us tonight.
IRA HELFAND: Unfortunately, I don't think that Senator Sanders has much understanding about it, anymore than any of the other candidates. This just is not part of the political discourse at this point. And these people are busy. And they pay attention to the things that are on their plate.
And Bernie has made a very powerful case about economic inequality in the country and related issues. But he's not addressed this really at all, nor have any of the other candidates, except for Ted Cruz, who talks about carpet-bombing places. And I assume that would include using nuclear weapons, because he talks about the sand glowing afterwards.
It's a real problem. There is no one in the real political leadership of this country who is taking this issue seriously. And that is part of our job, to change that.
People are finally starting to talk seriously about climate change, the other great existential threat to human survival. But this issue is an orphan in the wilderness still. And we really need to change that.
People in the Sanders campaign-- I think he's potentially the person I think might be most open to hearing about this. And people who have anything to do with the campaign really should be raising this with the campaign. Why isn't he talking about this?
We have never since Ronald Reagan been able to sit down with a US president and brief him about what's going to happen if nuclear weapons are used. And we know as a fact that the leadership of this country and most of the other countries in the world that have nuclear weapons do not know what's going to happen if they use their own nuclear weapons. And that's really scary.
We've gone to the State Department repeatedly and done briefings. We've spoken to Rose Gottemoeller, who's the undersecretary of state for disarmament affairs. We've met with her repeatedly to brief her. And she does know about nuclear famine and the effects of limited nuclear war.
And we've offered to do a briefing for the whole State Department and she's never taken us up on it. And when we've met with other people in the State Department who are working with her who should know about this, they don't. And that's really to me quite scary.
And then I'll come to you.
AUDIENCE: We're from Syracuse, and I just wanted to thank you and PSR and [INAUDIBLE] on behalf of two people. We have really benefited from [INAUDIBLE] posthumously and Rich-- Richard Weiskopf who is still alive and is still practicing on this concern.
Back to what we don't know, and like the movie showed us that a lot of people don't know how many nuclear weapons there are in the world. One other thing that I think we don't know is what US policy is about first use. I would venture to say most people here would imagine that the US doesn't have a first-use policy, but that we would retaliate in the event of a nuclear war with Russia. And yet, can you explain more about first use from the US point of view?
IRA HELFAND: Yeah. The US has refused to take a no-first-use pledge. It really tries to create the impression that we would only use these in the event of a nuclear attack. But it refuses to make a no-first-use pledge. And as I mentioned earlier, it has actually threatened to use nuclear weapons and contemplated using nuclear weapons on a number of occasions against countries which were not nuclear-armed.
The fact is that the United States views its nuclear arsenal as another weapon in its quiver. And the nuclear posture review, the most recent one that was concluded, says that deterrence of nuclear attack is the primary reason for us to maintain a nuclear arsenal. But it's not the only reason.
And it's very disturbing. It's not the way we like to think of ourselves. We do not like to think that our country would do this.
And one of the things that I think we need to understand is that our country not only has done to Russia and Nagasaki. We sort of grandfathered that out in a way. But we have talked about doing it since then and very well may do that at some point in the future.
AUDIENCE: Three things. I'll be real quick. One is just take the western Europeans over the last 25 years at least or 30 years have consistently felt more threatened by the United States foreign policy than Russia. Unfortunately maybe Putin will be reversing that. But I'm glad you pointed out we have consistently refused to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons and Russia always had.
Second of all, as a long-time supporter of PSR but also as an active environmentalist, I'm really torn. This is the first time I've been challenged in 20 years or more in thinking that maybe the nuclear issue is more important than the environmental issue. So if you could just real briefly put them on a scale and let us know.
And then third of all, I will say Bernie Sanders has made a very powerful statement against military spending, saying it needs to go to social needs. So I think he's very-- he's approachable on that, even if he's not particularly knowledgeable on nuclear matters.
IRA HELFAND: There are a lot of people who are opposed to the level of spending. And that's good. But if we're going to get rid--
AUDIENCE: Not Republicans.
IRA HELFAND: Even some Republicans, actually, because of their budget concerns. But if we're going to get rid of these weapons, it has to go way beyond that. People have got to understand in their gut that these weapons threaten their children. And until we do, we're not going to get rid of these arsenals. We may cut the budget some, but we're not going to get rid of the arsenal.
And I think we have to be real clear about that. It is not enough just to say we need to decrease the spending. We certainly need to do that. It's necessary, but it's by no means sufficient.
On the scale of environment versus nuclear, I think there's no question that nuclear danger is far greater. It's immediate. The world could end while we're sitting here tonight.
And climate change can't do that to us. That's not to say that climate change isn't an existential threat. It is and it needs to be addressed too. And those are the two issues that PSR takes on as our primary focus of our mission. But in terms of the immediacy and the extent of the destruction that would follow a nuclear war, I think it is the greatest issue.
Interestingly, it's also nuclear war is probably the way that climate change will get us in the end. And PSR is about to sort of launch a symposium series perhaps on this theme. It was suggested to us by the people who are doing climate work with PSR. They said, you know, the problem is people tend to focus on kind of the minor aspects of climate change, not that these are unimportant, but they are minor compared to the really big issues. They worry about polar bears not having enough place to swim and they worry about dengue fever spreading to a slightly larger range than it has. Those are problems.
But what climate change is going to do is it's going to destroy civilization. And the way it's going to do it is by making large portions of the planet uninhabitable and causing enormous conflict in those areas, some of which, like South Asia and the Middle East, have nuclear weapons. And probably the way that climate change is going to exert its greatest negative impact on us is by provoking a huge migration, a gigantic refugee crisis, all kinds of conflict, and ultimately, perhaps nuclear war.
So the other issue on this is that getting rid of nuclear weapons is much easier than transforming the entire global economy in the way that we need to. And so that's one thing that I take a great deal of hope from. This is not that hard to do. If we had a Gorbachev-like figure, someone who understood this issue and was willing to act on it, this could I think move very quickly, in ways that when it was all over, we would look back and say, wow. Just like the Berlin Wall coming down, how did this happen so quickly? Because it doesn't take that much to do it if we just can get over the hump.
One thing I just want to say. We want to wrap this up in a couple of minutes. My final message to you, when you leave this room, the first thing that's going to happen is you're all going to start to forget the stuff that I described about what's going to happen if there's a nuclear war. It's not just the usual act of forgetting that happens when we get tons of information, we can't retain it all, we forget stuff. It's not just that.
Your minds are going to start actively erasing what I've told you. This is horribly uncomfortable stuff to think about. And the normal human response to that is to just push it out of your mind. It's what we've all done.
To a certain degree, this is fine. It's necessary. We need to keep on living and doing the things that we do every day.
But we can't do that. If we're going to get over this problem, we have to hold onto this information. And we need to hold onto it, as I mentioned earlier, in the part of our brain that motivates our daily activity. We have to wake up every day and say, what am I going to do today to prevent nuclear war?
And to the students in the audience, I do offer an apology for putting this on you. You had nothing to do with creating this problem. And in that very important sense, you're not responsible for it. But in a much bigger sense, you are responsible, because if you don't do something about it, along with me and the rest of us, this problem is not going to go away. Everything that I've talked about is going to happen.
This burden is going to be with-- all of us who know about this, which includes all of us in the room now, have a responsibility to act on this. If you see somebody fall down on the street, you can't just step over them. You have to take action. And if you know that your entire planet is in danger, you have to take action.
And that responsibility is not going to be lifted from any of your shoulders until we get rid of all these weapons. And that is a burden. And I'm sorry that that's the way it is.
But if this is the burden, I think I have also offered to you today something of a gift. Every one of you wants to do something good with your life. We have the opportunity to save the world. This is a very good thing to do. And I hope that every one of you will become involved in this effort.
Most everybody is familiar with the lord of the ring. Nuclear weapons are the closest we have come to a ring of power on this Earth. The only difference is that the fellowship of the ring was limited to like this handful of dwarves and elves. If we're going to get this job done, our fellowship has to involve all of us. And I challenge everyone who was not already involved in this issue to join that fellowship, to figure out how on this campus you build a movement that helps to educate the general public and our decision-makers about the danger that we face and the possibility we have for eliminating that danger and the urgency of doing so before there's a real catastrophe. So thanks very much again for listening to me.
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Ira Helfand, co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, discusses the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons Feb. 8, 2016 as part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.