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Let Them Eat Soot!

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A new book of diaries by Alastair Campbell, the former communications director to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, pulls the curtain back on a chilling diplomatic episode that took place in Pakistan just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Campbell had accompanied Blair to Islamabad to build support for the imminent bombing of Afghanistan, but at a dinner organized by Pakistan's then-President Pervez Musharraf the conversation turned to India, Pakistan's long-time enemy. Campbell writes,

At dinner I was between two five-star generals who spent most of the time listing atrocities for which they held the Indians responsible, killing their own people and trying to blame 'freedom fighters.' They were pretty convinced that one day there would be a nuclear war because India, despite its vast population and despite being seven times bigger, was unstable and determined to take them out.

Campbell continues,

When the time came to leave, the livelier of the two generals asked me to remind the Indians: 'It takes us eight second to get the missiles over,' then flashed a huge toothy grin.

In his book The Burden of Power, which is being serialized in London's Guardian, Campbell says that "eight-second warning" was taken very seriously at 10 Downing Street several months later when India and Pakistan had mobilized their troops in a tense stand-off along their common border in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. There was fear in the British government that the long simmering hostilities between the two countries would explode into a nuclear war. In his book Campbell says Blair received a memo from his senior policy adviser, David Manning, indicating he thought "the Pakistanis would 'go nuclear' and if they did, they would not be averse to unleashing their nuclear weapons on a big scale." Blair is described as being genuinely alarmed and asked Manning, "They wouldn't really be prepared to go for nuclear weapons over Kashmir would they? To which Manning replied that the problem was, "There wasn't a clear understanding of strategy and so situations tended to develop and escalate quickly and you couldn't really rule anything out."

According to the book, the Indian government anticipated it would lose 500,000 people in a nuclear attack by Pakistan. But what about the rest of the world? How would other nations be impacted if a nuclear war broke out between India and Pakistan? For the answer to that question, we turn to Dr. Alan Robock and Dr. Brian Toon, two respected scientists who, as it turns out, have published a number of peer reviewed studies, along with other colleagues, assessing the worldwide environmental impact of a "limited" or regional nuclear war between small nuclear armed states, such as India and Pakistan. Robock and Toon say a "small" nuclear war between India and Pakistan, if they each had 50 Hiroshima-size bombs( less the one percent of the world's nuclear arsenal), would trigger a catastrophic change in the earth's climate -- one that would severely impact the ability of the world to grow crops and feed itself.

Robock, a professor of climatology at Rutgers University, and Toon, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, used modern day, high speed computers and climate model simulations to arrive at their findings. The say fires from the nuclear war would produce more than five million metric tons of smoke and soot particles that would be lofted into the upper atmosphere. Within two weeks, the smoke would cover the skies across all the world's continents, and after a few months, the suspended particles would block enough sunlight so that skies everywhere would look perpetually overcast. The reduced sunlight would plunge the earth's temperature to its lowest level in 1,000 years. And, the scientists say, the suspended smoke would take 10 years to dissipate. Their models also show a worldwide 10 percent drop in precipitation with a 40 percent rainfall decline in Asia's monsoon region. A cold, dark and dry earth would compromise agriculture, resulting in food shortages and a worldwide panic.

More than the one billion people currently on marginal food supplies would be in danger of dying of starvation. Writing in Scientific American, Robock and Toon say, "The only way to eliminate the possibility of a climactic catastrophe is to eliminate nuclear weapons." It's not the first time their scientific research has culminated in a dire warning.

Back in the 1980's, they were among the American and Russian scientists whose work, along with Carl Sagan's, was instrumental in convincing Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that the potential price humanity would pay for escalating the arms race would be nuclear winter. In an interview in 2000, Gorbachev said, "Models made by Russian and American scientists showed that a nuclear war would result in a nuclear winter that would be extremely destructive to all life on Earth; the knowledge of that was a great stimulus to us, to people of honor and morality, to act." Robock and Toon say that because the United State and Russia chose to stop the arms race, most people believe the nuclear threat is over. On the contrary they say, "The increasing number of nuclear states" -- like India and Pakistan -- "raises the chances of war starting deliberately or by accident." Their science shows even a so-called "small" nuclear war would have huge and devastating consequences for people living nowhere near it.

Helen Young is in production on the documentary "Bangor 5" which follows the federal case against five nuclear disarmament activists who believe the world is at a critical nuclear tipping point.