Public needs to wisen up to nuclear winter risks, experts warn

Experts found U.S. and UK public aren't taking the prospect of a 'nuclear winter' seriously enough, given the myriad of global risks.
John Loeffler
A nuclear bomb explosion on Earth, seen from orbit
A nuclear bomb explosion on Earth, seen from orbit


Ask the public in the U.S. and UK if they're afraid of a nuclear winter, and you're likely to get some rolled eyes and a few chuckles if a new report from the University of Cambridge is anything to go on.

The report, produced by Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), found that very few of the 3,000 people polled online were cognizant of the various threats from a nuclear winter, including just 1.6 percent in the UK who were aware of academic studies about the subject, and just nine percent of the U.S. respondents recalling beliefs about nuclear winter that was part of the cultural milieu in the 1980s.

“In 2023, we find ourselves facing a risk of nuclear conflict greater than we’ve seen since the early eighties," said CSER senior research associate Paul Ingram. "Yet there is little in the way of public knowledge or debate of the unimaginably dire long-term consequences of nuclear war for the planet and global populations.”

“Ideas of nuclear winter are predominantly a lingering cultural memory as if it is the stuff of history, rather than a horribly contemporary risk,” Ingram added.

U.S. and UK public are hearing much less about Nuclear Winter than they should

The threat of a widespread nuclear exchange is typically framed in terms of destroyed cities and mass deaths in the nuclear blast zones or from subsequent radiation exposure, but the threat of nuclear winter is just as catastrophic.

A nuclear exchange between two nuclear powers like the US and Russia would send massive amounts of debris high into our atmosphere which would reduce the amount of light and energy reaching the surface from the Sun.

This would lower global temperatures considerably and starve essential crops and plant life from the sunlight they need to grow, producing widespread crop failures and famine across the world.

Nuclear deterrence through the threat of mutually-assured destruction only works if the public and policymakers are aware of the consequences of a nuclear exchange. With the increasing rhetoric from Russian officials around the use of nuclear weapons in that country's war in Ukraine, and Western governments' continued arms shipments to bolster Ukrainian defenses, the threat of a nuclear exchange is higher than it's been in 40 years, according to the report.

“Of course, it is distressing to consider large-scale catastrophes," Ingram said, "but decisions need to account for all potential consequences to minimize the risk. Any stability within nuclear deterrence is undermined if it is based on decisions that are ignorant of the worst consequences of using nuclear weapons.”

In the least destructive scenario from the survey, where only 0.1 percent of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals were used, the resulting nuclear winter could claim as many as 225 million lives.

How would the West react to a nuclear exchange over Ukraine?

One of the more pressing findings in the report is what happened when members of the U.S. and UK public were presented with fictional, near-future news reports (dated July 2023) of a nuclear attack on Ukraine by Russia and vice versa to assess whether the public would want to see Western retaliation.

The survey showed half the respondents (750 each in the US and UK) an infographic outlining the consequences of a nuclear winter before showing them the news reports, while a control group of equal size was only shown the news reports.

When the infographic was not shown first, researchers found a larger number of respondents wanted the West to retaliate with nuclear weapons: 20.7 percent and 24.4 percent of US and UK men, respectively, and 14.1 percent and 16.1 percent of UK women, respectively.

If respondents were shown the infographic first, support for nuclear retaliation dropped by about 16 percent in the US and 13 percent in the UK, with the effect even more pronounced when controlling for respondents supporting the political party leading the U.S. and UK governments (Democrats in the U.S. and Conservatives in the UK).

"There is an urgent need for public education within all nuclear-armed states that is informed by the latest research. We need to collectively reduce the temptation that leaders of nuclear-armed states might have to threaten or even use such weapons in support of military operations,” Ingram said.

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