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"Forget the Rest" blog


"Nuclear Winter," a video published by the New York Times

Comments by Steven Starr (

April 3, 2016

"This video actually appears to be a subtle effort to downplay the truly existential danger posed by nuclear winter.

"After briefly introducing the concept of nuclear winter, the video then begins to portray it as a flawed theory. It does so by dredging up scientifically discredited information and presenting it as fact. The narrator in the video states that "over time, better modeling caused many of the nuclear winter theorists to agree that nuclear winter's effects were likely more moderate than they had initially supposed." A 1980s film clip is shown, which features one of the scientists (Starley Thompson) who authored the study on "nuclear autumn", which was used to "prove" that the original nuclear winter predictions by Sagan and his colleagues were "too extreme".

"What the NY Times video does not say is that the "nuclear autumn study itself was discredited; it was later shown to have used faulty smoke injection models (as demonstrated later by observed Canadian forest fires), which assumed that much of the smoke from nuclear firestorms would be rained out before it reached the stratosphere. Studies done in 2006-2008 (by Robock, Toon, et al, see ) demonstrated that the smoke would actually be heated by sunlight, creating a self-lofting effect that would cause it to rise into the stratosphere, which is why so much of it would then form a global stratospheric smoke layer.

"In other words, more recent studies on nuclear winter found just the *opposite* of what the NY Times video is reporting – the nuclear winter studies of the 1980s actually *underestimated* the effects of nuclear war.

"The NY Times environmental journalist, Andrew Revkin goes back and forth with the Los Alamos PhD Michael MacCracken, talking about how the "soft stuff" in the nuclear winter theory was "whittled away", while the old headlines about nuclear "autumn" are displayed. Apparently neither Revkin nor MacCracken have read any of the 21st century nuclear winter research, which make nonsense out of their comments.

"Dr. Robock is included in this video, speaking about his research on the effects that a “regional” nuclear conflict (between India and Pakistan) would have upon global climate and food supplies. Understand that Dr. Robock would not consider the effects of this “regional conflict” to represent a nuclear winter. Notice that the narrator seems to imply this when he states that "for his part, Robock has modeled a hypothetical worse case scenario . . "

"I think this was said in order to deliberately to mislead the audience. I am quite sure that Dr. Robock would not consider an India-Pakistan nuclear war, fought with 100 atomic bombs, to be a "worst case scenario" when it comes to nuclear war. One only has to look at Robock's peer-reviewed paper, "Nuclear winter revisited with modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences"…/RobockNW2006JD008235.pdf to see what a true worst case scenario would be – a full scale nuclear war between the US and Russia using their strategic nuclear weapons, which have thousands of times more explosive power than those detonated in the “regional” conflict.

"I would also bet that Dr. Robock had no idea the NY Times would edit/write the script in this fashion. They of course put him in a terrible position . . . if he criticizes them, they probably won't change the content and they also won't ask for another interview.

"What I find most striking in this video is the complete absence of discussion of the consequences of a war fought with the strategic nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia, which Dr. Robock notes could still cause a nuclear winter. Instead, the video focuses entirely on the “worst case” scenario of a nuclear war fought by nations that possess atomic bombs rather than strategic nuclear weapons. Apparently it is verboten to mention this topic (as it was at the recent “nuclear security” summit in Washington). This idea is reinforced even at the end of the video, when Revkin reiterates the danger of a “small nuclear war” while pictures are shown of North Korean nuclear weapons.

"The NY Times ended the video with Sagan saying that “maybe we have all made some serious mistake in the calculations, but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it”. A truly honest ending of the video would have allowed Dr. Robock or Toon to point out that the only mistake Sagan and his colleagues made was to underestimate the effects of nuclear war. But in keeping with the intent of the video, Sagan’s last words were chosen to leave the impression that a mistake had been made, that the nuclear winter theory was “too extreme”.

"Why is this important? For the same reasons nuclear winter was perceived by the public to be important when it was first announced, when the best scientists in the world had told them that nuclear war would destroy the human race. You can’t justify keeping nuclear arsenals intact if a nuclear war will end human history. As one of the old headlines in the video stated, “If the theory proves valid, the threat of a “nuclear winter” could force a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and the military’s plans.”

"Therefore, it was important for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons manufacturing complex to discredit the message, and hence in the 1980s a concerted smear campaign against nuclear winter was undertaken. Negative stories were run in the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Foreign Policy, and the National Review, calling nuclear winter “bad science” and the scientists who had authored it to be “irresponsible” and “frauds”. By 1990, this campaign had succeeded in even convincing anti-nuclear activists that nuclear winter was discredited.

"It wasn’t until Robock and Toon, et al, in 2006-2007 courageously chose to do new research, using modern computers and models that evaluated curent nuclear arsenals, which proved the original 1980s research to be quite correct.

"As models improve, and more studies are done, it seems that the predicted results grow even worse. Yet you wouldn’t know it by listening to the experts at the NY Times, who are still reading the same scripts from the smear campaign that apparently has not ended.

"You see, it is important not to think about the dangers of nuclear war when you are actively supporting a new Cold War with Russia."

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