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Editorial: Beyond doomsday, to an understanding of nuclear famine

When Norway’s foreign ministry convened a conference last week in Oslo, more than 128 nations, and even the busy folks at the Vatican, saw the topic as important enough to send representatives. The United States, sadly, did not.

Sixty-eight years after it was the first nation to use atomic weapons, the U.S. is not necessarily the problem, but it can and should be part of the solution when it comes to lessening the risk of even “limited” nuclear war.

America wasn’t there in Oslo, but several Americans were, including Ira Helfand, a Northampton doctor who for years has helped bring attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. He is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize) and co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

His message last week: If there is even a relatively small exchange of nuclear weapons in a regional war, as many as one billion people could die of starvation. Of course, the death toll from explosions and radiation exposure would be catastrophic. But it gets worse.

This “nuclear famine” scenario, developed over the last five years by climate scientists, explores the outcome of a war between India and Pakistan. It considers the resulting collapse of food production systems. This would first imperil the estimated 870 million people whose food supplies are already tenuous. It would then strike at residents of countries such as Japan and Korea who import much of their food and depend on stable international markets.

While the overall number of nuclear weapons has dropped since the Cold War, tens of thousands of these devices remain in arsenals, the Norwegian foreign ministry notes. And the number of countries with access to weapons has actually increased.

Before heading to Norway, Helfand told the Gazette he hoped while in Oslo to expand international awareness about the risk of nuclear famine. This is one of the most overlooked problems we face.

The prospect of nuclear war has been an unthinkable horror for decades. But to their credit, people like those who journeyed to Norway know that the consequences of their use must be considered. Conference organizers said their main goal was to advance understanding about what the world would face after a nuclear weapons detonation.

This kind of planning makes us think of work being done globally to predict what impact rising sea levels will have on coastal communities. The triggers have already been pulled on global warming, so that’s no longer a question of “if.”

The most pressing question in Oslo wasn’t whether a humanitarian crisis will result from nuclear war. People were not there to rate how likely that is. As the foreign ministry put it, the conference was instead called for a simple reason: As long as it is possible that nuclear weapons could be used somewhere in the world, we must all understand what would come next.

On this, Ira Helfand and his colleagues bring a grim but essential message.

Back in 1985, the Nobel Prize committee said this of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War: “This organization has performed a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare. The committee believes that this in turn contributes to an increase in the pressure of public opposition to the proliferation of atomic weapons and to a redefining of priorities, with greater attention being paid to health and other humanitarian issues.”

“Such an awakening of public opinion,” the committee said 28 years ago, “can give the present arms limitation negotiations new perspectives and a new seriousness.”

The public is not yet awake.

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