An open letter to President-elect Trump about nuclear weapons and nuclear winter

November 11, 2016

Dear President-elect Trump,

You will soon have control of the US nuclear arsenal. If it is ever used, it could kill almost every American, as well as the rest of humanity, because of the impacts of the smoke from fires that would be ignited, which would cool Earth’s surface and kill virtually all crops in the ensuing nuclear winter. You now have the opportunity to prevent this from ever happening, by quickly reducing our nuclear arsenal, saving us hundreds of billions of dollars in the process. Doing so will win you a Nobel Peace Prize. Here are the facts:

  • There are 15,350 nuclear weapons on the planet, with Russia (7,300) and the United States (7000) accounting for almost all of them. The other seven nuclear nations are France (300), China (260), UK (215), Pakistan (130), India (120), Israel (80), and North Korea (10). New START, signed by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, requires each side by next year to reduce deployed warheads to a maximum of about 2,000 each, but the treaty does not limit the much larger number of weapons that are in storage or reserve. The United States has embarked on a modernization program for our nuclear arsenal that will cost about $1,000,000,000,000 ($1 trillion) over the next 30 years. What a waste of money for weapons we can never use. Please cancel this modernization program, and consider all the other things we could do with this money.
  • In the 1980s, American and Russian scientists, working together, discovered that smoke from fires ignited by nuclear explosions would be so dense that it would block out the sun, turning Earth cold, dark, and dry, killing plants, and preventing agriculture for at least a year. In the last decade, working with some of the same scientists, particularly Richard Turco, Brian Toon, and Georgiy Stenchikov, and using modern climate models and computers, I found that this nuclear winter theory was correct, that the effects would persist for more than a decade, and that the New START-reduced nuclear arsenals will still be able to produce this nuclear winter. It is an unfortunate fact that cities burn. San Francisco burned for three days and nights after the earthquake in 1906. Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden, Darmstadt, and multiple Japanese cities burned after bombing in World War II. Some modern buildings burn even more easily, as can be seen in the skyscraper fires started with discarded cigarettes in Dubai. Modern megacities would produce a lot more smoke than the assumptions made in previous studies. We also found that if either the United States or Russia attacked the other with their current arsenal, it would produce so much climate change that it would kill everyone in the country that did the attacking, even if there was no retaliation. This mean we live in a world of Self-Assured Destruction (SAD) in addition to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Thus any nation threatening a first strike attack would be acting as a suicide bomber. In addition, we found that a very small nuclear war between any two nuclear nations, using only 100 or so small, Hiroshima-size atomic bombs, with a total explosive power of much less than one percent of the current global arsenal, could produce enough smoke to cause climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. It would not be full nuclear winter, but it could sentence 1 to 2 billion people to death by starvation. To prevent the possibility of a nuclear winter, the United States and Russia need to immediately reduce their arsenals to the same levels as all the other nuclear states, a couple hundred. After all, how many do you need to use as a deterrent? A couple? To prevent the nuclear famine that would result from even a very small number of weapons targeted on cities and industrial areas, arsenals need drastic reductions.
  • Partially as a result of the growing awareness of the global impacts on climate and food that would result from a nuclear war, three international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear war were held: in Norway in March 2013; in Mexico in February 2014, and in Austria in December, 2014. This worldwide movement resulted in the Open-Ended Working Group meetings of the United Nations in 2016, culminating in a UN resolution to have negotiations in 2017 toward a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons; the resolution was supported by 123 nations. The United States voted against this resolution, but now is your chance to change US policy and support this ban on nuclear weapons next year. The world has banned chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster munitions, and land mines, but not the worst weapons of mass destruction of all, nuclear weapons. As discussed above, they cannot be used in any rational way. Nuclear weapons cannot be used to fight terrorism or cyber threats. However, there have been many instances when nuclear weapons were almost used by accident or confusion. One can also imagine hackers getting access. Now is your chance to make the world much safer by ridding it of this threat.
  • Proliferation of nuclear weapons has already produced nine nuclear states. As we all know, Iran was on track to become the tenth, but was stopped by an international agreement, done in collaboration with Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union. This has made the world much safer and sends a message about the international community's wilingness to stop other nations from obtaining nuclear weapons. You have an obligation to reiterate US support for this agreement. Any attempts to dismantle it will result in Iran getting nuclear weapons sooner and embolden other countries wishing to move in the same direction.

There are several first steps you can take to make the world safer. 

You can change our nuclear policy to one of no first use of nuclear weapons. There are no circumstances in which we should use nuclear weapons to attack anyone. We can defend the Unnited States with our modern, precision-guided weapons, which do not require wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians.

You can take US land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert. Any use of nuclear weapons requires deliberate thought, not immediate reaction during a time of panic and possible misinformation. What a message of peace taking US missiles off high-alert status will be to the world.

You can stand down our land-based missiles and begin to dismantle them as part of a rapid reduction of our nuclear arsenal. No treaty with Russia is needed, and President George H. W. Bush set a precedent for this by reducing our nuclear arsenal as the Soviet Union was coming apart. This unilateral action will have the two-fold effect of making accidental nuclear war much less likely and setting the world on a path to reducing the threat of global nuclear war and nuclear winter.

Your presidency is an unprecedented opportunity for positive change in the world. Reducing the threat of nuclear war and nuclear winter will make the United States safer and richer, and cement your status as a world leader. Please take advantage of this chance to be a real winner.