Forty years ago, findings on the global climatic effects of nuclear war first introduced the prospect of “nuclear winter.” In the decades since, the consequences of nuclear use have remained only incidental to considerations of nuclear policy. A new paper from NTI, “Global Effects of Nuclear Conflict: Implications for Nuclear Policymaking, Then and Now,” highlights the need for renewed attention to the catastrophic effects of nuclear conflict as a crucial step toward reducing the risk of nuclear use.
The paper provides historical context and describes how the scientific revelation of “nuclear winter” was first received by the U.S. defense community in the 1980s. It sheds light on the debate that emerged over how U.S. nuclear policy should account for the implications of the global effects of nuclear use, as many of the questions posed then are even more important to consider in the context of today’s interconnected and economically interdependent world. The complexity of modern global systems creates new vulnerabilities and introduces risks of cascading societal, economic, industrial, and political failures that countries are dangerously unprepared to address.
Both a reflective analysis and a forward-looking call for renewed investigation into and consideration of the global effects of nuclear conflict, the paper outlines several critical questions for experts and policymakers to confront, including:
- How does the recognition of global nuclear effects change the role and perceived utility of nuclear weapons in national security strategies?
- How should the cascading effects of nuclear war shape nuclear planning?
- Why has research into cascading nuclear effects been neglected in nuclear policy discussions?
Without answers to these important questions, nuclear weapons policy will continue to be premised on an incomplete understanding of the consequences of nuclear use, risking catastrophic miscalculations and endangering national and global security.