Nuclear taboo | Prof. Matthew Evangalista, government, introduces Dr. Ira Helfand before his lecture on the potential consequences of a nuclear war in Goldwin Smith on Monday.

February 9, 2016

Peace Prize Winner Talks Catastrophic Effects of Nuclear War

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Dr. Ira Helfand, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, discussed the impacts of nuclear conflicts and ways to prevent nuclear escalation on Monday.

The physician is also the co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Many young people are “profoundly” uneducated about nuclear weapons, according to Helfand. The physician showed a video, that won first prize in the student category for the Nukebusters 2015 Short Film Contest, which demonstrated how disturbed students are when they hear about nuclear weapon capacity for damage.

Helfand argued that this lack of education is dangerous because it translates to complacency among the next generation of potential anti-nuclear proliferation advocates.

Helfand urged the young people in the audience to take stock of the staet of nuclear weapons today, saying that although they had not been involved in “creating the problem,” that this could not be complete because “this problem is not going to go away.”

Helfand also described the social impacts of a nuclear conflict — including radioactive contamination, a disruption the global climate with smoke and soot — all of which he said could contaminate in human extinction.

This mass destruction could also result from the degradation of food production throughout the world, according to Helfand. Large drops in temperature, due to a nuclear fallout, could wreck havoc on food staples like corn in the United States and rice i China.

The consequences of nuclear conflict would be global, Helfand said. If a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan occurred, China’s Guangdong province, thousands of miles away, would see its rice crops fail completely within a year, and its 37 million residents would starve, according to Helfand.

“We are not in the position on this planet today to absorb this kind of decline in food production,” he said. “Grain reserves, as of last month, amount to only about 80 days of consumption worldwide if production stops. This reserve will not provide an adequate buffer in the event of a significant decline of food production.”

The scarcity of food could also lead to global hoarding by countries who export food, placing other countries, who already struggle feeding their people at greater risk of famine, according to Helfand.  He said these inflated food prices could last for decades. By recent estimates, there are almost 795 million malnourished people in the world, he said.

“All of these people would be at terrible risk if there were a 10 to 30 percent decline in the food available to them,” Helfand said.

Shocks would also harm the 300 million people who live in countries that import food as well as many others who are not rich enough to pay inflated food prices. Additionally, nuclear radiation would cause dire health problems nad there would be little available treatment, according to Helfand.

“This has lead us to conclude that 2 billion people worldwide could face death by starvation in the event of a limited nuclear war confined to one section of the globe,” he said. “This is an event unprecedented in human history, we have never seen anything like the death of a third of the human population in a single decade.”

With impacts this great, Helfand stressed that stopping the escalation of nuclear weapon must be made a political priority.

“While this is the future that will be if we do not act, it is not the future it needs to be,” he said. “Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature. They are implements which we have built with our own hands and we know how to take them apart. What has been lacking is the political will.”

Several steps, such as taking U.S. nuclear weapons off high alert, eliminating tactical nuclear weapons and ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would have immense significance in creating a nuclear weapon free world, accoring to Helfand.

Helfand ended the discussion by urging public engagement in ending the reliance on nuclear weapons.

“I challenge everyone who is not already involved in this issue to figure out how on this campus you build a movement that helps to educate the general public and our decision makers about the dangers we face, the possibility we have for eliminating that danger, and the urgency in doing so to avoid this catastrophe,” he said.

Helfand’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflicts Studies, the Center for Transformative Action and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.