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International treaty needed, with new urgency


In October last year, a large majority of the world’s nations voted to seek a binding treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons.

In August that year the newspaper Zeit recalled the bicentennial of a consequential “year without a summer,” in 1816.

After seemingly nonstop rains in spring, the summer months that year, through August, had brought repeated frosts and snowfall over much of Europe, where thousands died of starvation as crops failed. In the United States, people went sledding in Virginia in June, water froze in cisterns on Independence Day, and Thomas Jefferson, back in Monticello tending his agricultural estate after serving as President, applied for a $1,000 loan because his corn crop had been so poor.

The initiating cause had been the eruption of a volcano on an Indonesian island in1815, with force more than hundred times greater than the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 2008. Ten thousand of the island’s inhabitants died immediately in lava flows, fires and tsunami coastal destruction, 80,000 more through weather disruption later.

The amounts of dust, smoke and gases which the detonations had blasted into the atmosphere kept the skies darkened, sunlight reduced and global temperature chilled for many months to follow, across much of the Northern hemisphere, with famines and epidemics in their wake.

The “year without a summer” demonstrated on a small scale one of the catastrophic, systemic effects on the global atmosphere – a winter – which scientists predict could result from an exchange of nuclear weapons.

Helen Caldicott, a physician, notes that firestorms following nuclear detonations, consuming oil wells, chemical facilities, entire cities, and forests, would cover the earth with thick, black radioactive smoke. Sunlight could be so severely reduced “for a year or more [that] subfreezing temperatures would destroy the biological support system for civilization, resulting in massive starvation, thirst, and hypothermia.”

President Ronald Reagan, as stated in a 1985 White House document, held it to be “a vulnerability” that the effect of extreme and long-lasting atmospheric disruption was “not currently a part of the understanding of nuclear war” though it would likely mean “the total loss of human agricultural and societal support systems [and] the loss of almost all humans on Earth.”

Recent studies confirm this vulnerability, among other grave consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. Physicist David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists stated last year that “a regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could put enough soot into the atmosphere to cause global cooling sufficient to disrupt agriculture for a decade. The resulting food shortages and health effects could lead to the deaths of one to two billion people worldwide.”

At the United Nations in March, 120 countries began the negotiations toward a treaty, to be completed in New York in July, to ban these genocidal weapons. At their Reykjavik summit in 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had very nearly succeeded in reaching an agreement to dismantle existing stockpiles and eliminating completely the threat of nuclear destruction.

Instead of cavalierly threatening deployment of nuclear weapons, the current White House occupant should support a treaty on their banishment.