Monday, October 5, 2009

Lawrence Badash's "A Nuclear Winter's Tale"

Lawrence Badash is Professor Emeritus of History of Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Kapitza, Rutherford, and the Kremlin and Scientists and the Development of Nuclear Weapons: From Fission to the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s, and reported the following:
Of course I had no idea what I’d find on page 99 of A Nuclear Winter’s Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s. But, by chance, the text is a good representative of my writing and of the political part of the story I tell.

Nuclear winter is a shorthand term for the concept that cities surely would be attacked in a nuclear war and that combustible materials found in urban areas would produce so much smoke and soot that the sun would be obscured. A result of this is that agriculture would likely be destroyed in much of the world, and that more people would die from these “side” effects of nuclear war than directly from explosions in the combatant nations.

Any prediction of the consequences of nuclear war was bound to be controversial, for it inevitably would be entangled in proposals for arms control or arms expansion. Nuclear winter was further susceptible because it was a product of a new type of scientific research. Formerly, experimentation and theoretical investigations were the basis for science. Now, computer programming showed its usefulness. The programs, however, were not accepted by all, even if similar results were obtained as scientists moved from one-dimensional atmospheric models to three-dimensional global circulation models. Were such models, largely designed for normal atmospheric behavior, appropriate for such extremes as the consequences of nuclear explosions?

Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center were cautioned not to talk about nuclear war, even as they were permitted to investigate nuclear winter. War was not an appropriate study for the civilian space agency, and especially so under the heavy political hand of the Reagan administration. The bureaucracy was particularly concerned about the media skills of astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, who was one of the nuclear winter proponents. Yet the Department of Defense, quietly and with integrity, funded much of the research on a phenomenon that might affect how it would conduct future warfare.

My story of these political and scientific developments runs mostly from 1983 to the end of the decade. In time, the Reagan administration agreed that nuclear winter was a real effect, but claimed that its arms-expansion policies (including SDI) would prevent nuclear war and thus nuclear winter. Nuclear winter was co-opted, research funding fell victim to budget cuts, and burning oil wells in Kuwait, following Desert Storm, failed to produce a full-blown nuclear winter effect. But research has been resurrected in the mid-2000s, showing that even “small” nuclear wars can produce serious regional climatic effects. When, we must ask, should governments act on scientific advice?
Read excerpts from A Nuclear Winter's Tale, and learn more about the book at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue