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2022-08-17 11:30
What could a nuclear war do to the climate — and humanity?
A nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll
A nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll. | Getty Images

A new study on “nuclear winter” estimates that as many as 5 billion people could die from starvation.

It may feel as if the world is ending, but it’s already happened — five times over the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history, to be precise.

From the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event 440 million years ago to the dinosaur-killing Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago, the Earth has experienced five mass extinction waves when more than 75 percent of the species on the planet were snuffed out. Forget threatened species — these were the moments when the lights almost went out on all life on Earth.

What nearly all of those extinction events have in common is severe climate change on a geologically rapid time scale. During the End Permian event 251 million years ago — when an estimated 96 percent of species on Earth were killed off — a colossal volcanic eruption near what is now Siberia blasted vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. It led to a spike in global temperatures and climate disruption that most species couldn’t endure.

When it comes to extinction — including our own — we should be worried about sudden climate change that occurs too rapidly for us to survive. Human-caused climate change will cause unprecedented suffering, but even under the worst-case scenarios it seems unlikely to unfold fast enough to definitively wipe us out.

But as new research demonstrates, there is something else that may: nuclear winter.

The long night

In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Food, researchers led by Lili Xia and Alan Robock at Rutgers University modeled the climatic impacts of a nuclear war, and then attempted to quantify the effects on global food production.

The results were grim: a full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia with their current number of warheads could lead to as much as 150 million tons of soot being injected into the atmosphere, thanks to massive fires ignited by the explosions. All that soot would quickly spread around the globe and block incoming sunlight, putting the equivalent of a shade over the planet and leading to drastic global cooling. In the cold and dark, crops would wither and die, as would the livestock that depend on them.

As a result, the researchers project that global calorie production could drop by as much as 90 percent, leaving an estimated 5 billion people dead from famine in what is now known as nuclear winter.

“This would produce climate change that is unprecedented in human history,” Robock told reporters in a briefing on Monday. “In a US-Russia nuclear war, more people would die [from starvation] in India and Pakistan alone than in the countries actually fighting the war.”

While the length and severity of the projected nuclear winter is related to the number of warheads used in an exchange, the researchers find that even a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed countries that have repeatedly clashed over the past 75 years — would have global effects on the climate. The fires from such a war could release as much as 47 million tons of soot into the atmosphere, with a worst-case scenario causing global calorie production to drop by as much as 50 percent and leading to 2 billion deaths around the world.

The new study took advantage of recent computational progress in the latest climate models, only forecasting what would cause rapid cooling rather than long-term warming. Models of soot-forced cooling were fed into the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Community Land Model. That allowed the researchers to estimate the effect that cooling and the severe damage to the atmosphere’s ozone layer caused by nuclear explosions and soot would have on major crops like rice and wheat, as well as livestock pasture and global marine fisheries. “We were able to quantify how much food would be available for every country,” said Robock.

It’s important to note that these numbers are estimates of the unimaginable, with significant uncertainty. Even with the best computer models, it’s difficult to know exactly how the climate would respond to nuclear war, harder to predict how cooling would precisely impact food production, and even tougher to say how human society would respond to what would be the most catastrophic event our species would have ever experienced.

But we do know from the past that we would likely see significant cooling in the event of a nuclear firestorm. A massive volcanic eruption on Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 — the largest such event in human history — led to cooling so extreme that the following year was known as the “year without a summer,” as crop failures and famines led to global starvation. More recently, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines injected 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing a temporary reduction in average global temperatures of 0.5 degrees Celsius.

The return of nuclear winter — and nuclear fears

The Nature Food research is the latest paper in a long-running series of studies to examine the possibility of “nuclear winter.” While scientists were concerned about the effects that nuclear war would have on the climate from the earliest days of the Cold War, the term was first raised in studies published in 1983 by a team of researchers including the celebrity scientist Carl Sagan. Even before the research had come out — though after the studies had been accepted for publication — Sagan published an article in the popular magazine Parade hyping the threat from nuclear winter.

The original nuclear winter research had enormous political influence, and was enormously controversial, as the historian Jill Lepore described in a 2017 piece in the New Yorker. While his administration pushed back against the research, President Ronald Reagan was largely persuaded by the argument, as was then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev; Reagan noted that a nuclear war “could just end up in no victory for anyone because we would wipe out the earth as we know it.”

Within a few years of the publication of the original studies, the number of nuclear warheads in the world began to decline, from over 60,000 to around 10,000 today — and, with it, the fears of nuclear war.

But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year demonstrates, we may have forgotten about nuclear war, but nuclear war hasn’t forgotten about us. More countries possess nuclear weapons now than during the Cold War. International arms control treaties have begun to crumble, even as philanthropies have withdrawn from the nuclear realm. Delegates have been meeting this month at the United Nations in New York for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the cornerstone of the nuclear arms control regime, but little progress is expected even as global military spending is reaching a record high and international tensions have tightened.

If the threat of nuclear war isn’t as high as it was during the worst days of the Cold War, it is worse than it has been in years — and any risk of a disaster as horrific as the one outlined in nuclear winter research is too high to endure. Earlier this month, the Future of Life Institute, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based think tank on catastrophic risks, gave its annual award to the scientists behind the original nuclear winter theory, and warned that this threat was not yet behind us.

“The latest nuclear winter research confirms that Reagan was right when he said that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT and one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute. “In these turbulent times, the more decision-makers understand about nuclear winter, the less likely they are to make reckless decisions that may cause it.”

2022-08-16 16:55
Salman Rushdie and the enduring risk of political art
Author and social commentator Salman Rushdie speaks at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, in August 2018. | Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Did Americans forget the risks of free speech?

Novelist Salman Rushdie walked on stage at a summer festival at the Chautauqua Institution in New York to speak on Friday and was stabbed 10 times by an assailant. The violent attack on free speech has left Rushdie in the hospital and revived concerns around the perils facing artists who take risks.

Rushdie has faced death threats for more than three decades, since the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 and called for his death over purported blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses, which satirized Islamic histories and mythologies with magical realism. For a decade following, Rushdie lived underground as the book caused a firestorm. Khomeini’s condemnation led to booksellers in Europe and the United States being firebombed and publishers receiving persistent bomb threats. The Japanese translator of the novel, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991.

The threats against Rushdie never went away, but fell into the cultural backdrop. His books are taught in universities and sold in bookstores. The Satanic Verses has “become a symbol of freedom of speech,” said Tope Folarin, author of A Particular Kind of Black Man. And on a craft level, he said, Rushdie “is a master of doing this sprawling, big-picture fiction that includes a host of characters, and is really about showing your virtuosity.”

In the recent decades, Rushdie reemerged into social life. Though the reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the affair “completely finished” in 1998, the fatwa was not formally rescinded. Asked by the comedian Larry David about how the fatwa weighed on him, Rushdie replied in a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “It’s there, but fuck it.”

The attack on Rushdie is a striking reminder that fiction — along with art, poetry, and comics — can be dangerous tools that hold real power and risks.

Iran’s role here is not clear. Rushdie’s alleged attacker Hadi Matar is 24 years old; that is, younger than the novel that spurred the fatwa. He’s currently held in custody, and his attorney emphasized to the Daily Beast “the presumption of innocence,” but didn’t comment further. Intelligence sources told VICE that Matar, whose family is from southern Lebanon, may have links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But rather than focus on the perpetrator or what role, if any, Iran played, this is a moment to appreciate Rushdie’s multifold living legacy. That Rushdie remains a source of inspiration says perhaps even more about the ubiquity of those countering forms of repression — either subtle or violent, from individuals or the state.

“He was instrumental in showing me what a writer ought to be, and that is fearless and in opposition to power, wherever power gathers in culture, society, or politics,” novelist Zia Haider Rahman, the author of In the Light of What We Know, told me. “When I look around at the world of letters in the Anglosphere, what I see missing today is the fearlessness of the young Rushdie.”

The controversy over The Satanic Verses, briefly explained

Rushdie, who was born in Bombay before the British Empire’s partition of India and later worked in London as a copywriter, was a celebrated author even before The Satanic Verses. His second novel, Midnight’s Children, earned him the prestigious Booker prize. He brought South Asian characters into the anglophone literary scene and a post-colonial consciousness into global literature. As historian Juan Cole notes, “Ironically, the early 1980s translations of Midnight’s Children and Shame into Persian caused Rushdie to be admired in Iran for his anti-imperialism.”

Then came 1988.

That year, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Its intellectual origins can be traced to Rushdie’s undergraduate coursework in Cambridge when, as the novelist Laila Lalami notes, he studied a disputed set of verses spoken by the Prophet Muhammad that early Islamic scholars argued about (and later scholars rejected).

From the contested text and its subtext, Lalami explains that Rushdie took away a key theme: “The incident of the Satanic verses is essentially a case of prophetic testimony inspired by Satan, then corrected by God — a fascinating exchange between what is profane and what is divine, between the politically expedient and the religiously authentic,” she writes in The Nation.

Marchers scream out anti-Rushdie chants in Hartington Street, Derby. Mirrorpix/Getty Images
A protest against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in Derby, UK, on March 15, 1989.
Police Guard At Publishing House Georges De Keerle/Getty Images
A policeman stands guard outside the offices of the publisher Penguin Group in London, UK, on February 24, 1989.

Rushdie’s reworking of that story in the dreamscapes of his protagonist first stirred controversy in India, then back in the British press, and then the grand sheikh of the influential Al-Azhar institution in Cairo called it blasphemous.

In February 1989 came the Ayatollah’s fatwa. (Two days before, Pakistan’s riot police fired on demonstrators outside an American cultural institution in the country and killed at least five.) As the book was banned in many Muslim and Arab countries, protests multiplied, with tens of thousands of people holding inflammatory signs and chanting slogans against Rushdie. Death threats confronted publishers, booksellers, and translators associated with the author, even as many rallied behind him. Rushdie went into hiding.

Homi Bhabha, a senior scholar of literary criticism who teaches at Harvard, remembers reading early proofs of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie “never mentioned the possibility of this kind of outrage,” Bhabha told me. “It was terrifying.” The book is now caught up in religious controversy, but Bhabha — who was due to host a discussion with Rushdie this coming week as part of an ongoing series — explained that the novel is fundamentally about “displaced peoples and displaced geographies” in the time of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing British government.

“It’s very much a book about the way in which migrant communities — largely South Asian, but he is also interested in Afro-Caribbeans and others — constitute themselves as a community,” Bhabha explained. It’s about “the way in which they confront issues to do with identity, to do with history, to do with the past, to do with the future, and the way in which, particularly in Thatcherite Britain, they are treated as second-class citizens.”

Rushdie’s status as an immigrant writer who made it big in London made him a symbolic mentor to a generation since. “I am a direct beneficiary of somebody like him stepping forward and saying, ‘I can write as ambitiously and as gorgeously as any writer can,’” Folarin, a Nigerian American novelist who also directs the Institute for Policy Studies think tank, told me. Raised in a devout Pentecostal family, Folarin recalled the thrill of reading the novel in graduate school, a book whose very title was subversive. “The one thing that I’m really sort of disappointed about, in the midst of all this stuff, is that The Satanic Verses is a really good book,” he told me.

Rahman described coming into political awareness in the ’80s in London as an immigrant from Bangladesh “with a subaltern consciousness,” and how Rushdie presented to him a new way of thinking. “He also made us acutely aware that we were pawns in another person’s game, that we were objects of political discourse,” Rahman said.

Writers, it might be said, are a lot easier to attack than politicians and religious leaders. And the fatwa on Rushdie led to a wave of writers being threatened and targeted — an assassination attempt on the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 and a series of attacks on writers in Algeria in the 1990s. Around that time, Rushdie put forward the idea of a “City of Asylum” for writers at risk from around the globe.

When speech offends

It’s easy to forget how dangerous and complex some speech can be — but it’s a theme that I’ve been reporting on for over a decade. Perhaps most in places where free speech is not protected, artists bend whatever rules exist and take risks, creating more space for expression in the process.

In January 2015, two gunmen burst into the Paris offices of the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12, including five of the magazine’s rabble-rousing cartoonists.

I covered that tragedy from my base at the time in Cairo, Egypt, where as a journalist I wrote widely about cultural currents, focusing on how cartoonists and satirists grapple with the red lines of acceptable speech in countries with a repressive state and conservative religious politics. Many Arab cartoonists I interviewed had experienced censorship from state-aligned editors and death threats from religious extremists. They all staunchly supported the right of Charlie Hebdo to draw controversial topics related to Islam.

But cartoonists simultaneously criticized Charlie Hebdo for “punching down” at marginalized communities in Europe. It was, in some ways, a more subtle debate than what was happening in France or the United States, in which a kind of black-and-whiteness prevailed; you were either with the artists (“Je Suis Charlie” was the slogan of the moment) or against them, rather than asking why and how such a situation arose.

Vigil in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims Godong/Corbis via Getty Images
A portrait of killed cartoonist Georges Wolinski at the center of a vigil in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims in Paris.

When the free speech advocacy group PEN America set out to honor Charlie Hebdo for its annual award, six prominent writers took a stand against it — reviving a line that the late Marxist critic John Berger and others put forward about Rushdie around the time of the fatwa — that the work was incendiary and problematic. Rushdie, a longtime PEN advocate, rejected the detractors and called them “horribly wrong.”

Another incident that comes to mind is that of the Egyptian author Ahmed Naji. A private citizen had accused him of “disturbing the public decency” for the gonzo novel Using Life, with some salacious scenes that, after a turn of unfortunate events, landed him in prison for 10 months.

The beat authors Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs had faced obscenity trials in the United States in the postwar years, but I never imagined I would find myself in the courtroom of a peer who was on trial for transgressing public morals.

While in prison, Naji was recognized with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award, and Rushdie wrote him a note — “I send you all of my solidarity and admiration” — which meant a tremendous amount to Naji while incarcerated.

Funnily enough, Naji had taken up reading Rushdie in prison. He had always wanted to read Rushdie’s novels, he said, but they are big, long books, and he remembers telling his friends that he never had the time. So Naji’s friend sent him Midnight’s Children in prison, and then four more of Rushdie’s novels. “I always felt there is a kind of connection and relation between us,” Naji told me.

Now, Naji is a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, a literary center that is part of the City of Asylum network that Rushdie had envisioned. That refuge might seem unnecessary in 2022.

But 30 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, risks to writers endure. Some of those hazards come from violent extremists. Last month, the terrorist group al-Qaeda, in one of its publications, issued a death threat against the Egyptian journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa. States, too, engage in violent censorship, and a review of PEN’s Writers at Risk Database include those who have been murdered, jailed, or disappeared in repressive countries across the world. Authors are detained in Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries. Journalists, of course, confront violence as ever.

Some critics and scholars question whether Satanic Verses could be written today. Rushdie himself posited as much in 2012. But looking around the world at all of the writers at risk who continue to work against unfathomable challenges, I think it could.

“Writers have been in terrible situations and have yet managed to produce extraordinary work,” Rushdie said in 2012. “[T]he history of literature is full of moments in which writers in dreadful situations have produced great stuff.

“And I thought to myself, ‘OK, well, if this is your turn, if you find yourself in the latest of that line of people, don’t make excuses.’”