In Multipolarity, Nuclear war

New Cold War.org, Dec 5, 2016

New Scientist issue #3100

New Scientist issue #3100

To mark its 60th anniversary, the weekly UK magazine New Scientist published an 18-page feature in its edition of November 19, 2016 (Vol 232, No 3100).  Titled ‘Welcome to the future’, the feature includes 14 short essays looking at the possible future of science and society. Two of those essays are enclosed below:

  • What if civilisation collapses? (online title: ‘Civilisation was more fragile than we thought’), by Debora MacKenzie
  • What if there’s a nuclear war? (online title: ‘That nuclear war was a bit of a bummer), by Fred Pearce

Access the entire issue #3100 of New Scientist here.


The world in 2076: Civilisation was more fragile than we thought

By Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist, Nov 19, 2016

There are 7.4 billion people on the planet – nearly three times as many as there were 60 years ago. The UN estimates that in another 60 years we will be approaching 11 billion. Others say that population will peak soon, then fall gradually as we hit resource limits.

There is another possibility: that hitting those limits causes our surprisingly fragile civilisation to collapse, triggering a global die-off.

Civilisation may appear robust, but is actually a juggling act. We keep all the balls in the air using densely coupled networks of manufacturing, trade, money, employment, food, water, transport, energy, technology, healthcare, geopolitics and law and order. Each network depends on all the others through many feedback loops.

In other words, civilisation is an adaptive, complex system – and such systems are susceptible to catastrophic failure. Loss of any essential subsystem can cause the entire edifice to crash, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even small glitches are big trouble, as we saw in 2008 when local financial failures cascaded though coupled systems to cause the global crisis we are still feeling.

With civilisation itself, we don’t know what subsystems, or how much loss, would be enough to get us in serious trouble. But we have some idea what might trigger collapse.

If global warming, for example, causes methane release from frozen deposits, we could get positive feedback: further warming, further release and runaway rising temperatures. Farming systems would fail in the face of rapid changes in weather, pests and diseases. Millions would starve. Other major risks are nuclear war (see “The world in 2076: The anti-science backlash has begun“) and global pandemic.

As well as killing millions, these scenarios could trigger general collapse. Economic systems are sensitive to losing key workers, especially those who are “hubs” linking many others, such as truck drivers and oil refinery operators. An epidemic with a death rate like the 1918 flu, for example, would knock out key people crucial to food supply, civil order, transport, electricity and many other support systems. As things come unstuck, ever more people die for ever more reasons, more subsystems fail and collapse accelerates.

Couldn’t we all just hunker down and go back to business as usual when the storm is over? The problem is that once complex systems collapse, they stay collapsed. The lesson from history is that a less complex, alternative stable state from our past would re-emerge. It could be small, authoritarian city states, or even a return to hunting and gathering.

The moral of this story? We need to do something about pandemic preparation, greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear proliferation – and above all the fragility of a closely coupled global society with little resilience.


The world in 2076: That nuclear war was a bit of a bummer

By Fred Pearce, New Scientist, Nov 19, 2016

Sabres are rattling again between Moscow and Washington, not to mention India and Pakistan, feuding over Kashmir. China’s nuclear arsenal is growing. Some still fear the nuclear intentions of Iran. North Korea is a nuclear power. The cold war may be over, but the weapons and geopolitical flashpoints are still there. Could nuclear war happen sometime in the next 60 years?

The world still possesses around 10,000 nuclear warheads, overwhelmingly in Russia and the U.S. But let’s assume these two nations do not press the button, and that tensions eventually explode between India and Pakistan.

Most people away from South Asia might imagine such a conflict would not threaten them too much. Think again. The two countries have just over 200 relatively small nuclear warheads between them. Suppose they unleash half of them, a hundred 15-kilotonne weapons the size of Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The carnage from the blast, as well as firestorms and radiation in megacities like Karachi and Delhi, would kill millions. But that would be just the start, according to simulations by Alan Robock of Rutgers University in New Jersey and Michael Mills at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The fires would send about 5 million tonnes of hot black smoke into the stratosphere, where it would spread round the world. This smog would cut solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface by 8 per cent – enough to drop average winter temperatures by a startling 2.5 to 6 °C across North America, Europe and much of Asia, and not just for a few days. It would take around five years for the impacts to peak, and the repercussions would still be felt strongly after a decade.

Besides a nuclear winter, climate models predict that rainfall would be reduced as weather systems lost energy. The Asian monsoon would collapse: that’s two billion people with as much as 80 per cent less water. The Amazon basin and the already arid Southwestern U.S. and western Australia would scarcely do better.

The smoke would heat the normally chilly stratosphere by around 30 °C, unleashing nitrogen chemistry that would destroy much of the ozone layer. But skin cancer might be the least of our concerns. Near-ice-age temperatures would cause frosts capable of reducing the growing season in the world’s mid-latitude bread baskets by up to 40 days. This, combined with meagre rainfall and blistering UV, would cause crop yields to plummet. Nuclear winter would deliver global famine.

All this, remember, from a small regional war. Steven Starr of the University of Missouri has calculated that a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia could throw 150 million tonnes of smoke into the air. That would block 70 per cent of sunlight and cool much of the world by 20 °C or more. Unable to grow food, most people would starve to death. One of the greatest geopolitical achievements of the past 60 years was to avoid a nuclear war. Fingers crossed for the next 60.

*****

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