Michael KreponGlobal Warming Up; Arms Control Down

Smog smothers the city of BeijingClimate change has displaced nuclear risk reduction as an intense focus of national leaders and activists across the globe. This sense of commitment was reflected in the Paris pact that sets targets to reduce harmful emissions to slow the pace of man-made climate change and the rise of sea levels. Arms control activists, an increasingly lonely and dispirited bunch, watched with a combination of gratitude and envy as environmental leaders applauded the compact struck in Paris. Now comes the hard part: even more than with arms control agreements, successful reductions in carbon emissions will be challenging.

I remember when national leaders, activists, and the media used to place similar attention to nuclear dangers. Ambitious treaties were the result – treaties that curtailed and stopped nuclear testing, stalled the buildup of nuclear arsenals and then greatly curtailed them. The accord reached in Paris may be likened to the SALT I stage – curtailed growth – a sign of progress and a necessary step before significant reductions can be achieved. Meanwhile, arms control advocates are in a holding pattern, hemmed in by Vladimir Putin’s challenges and a Republican Party that opposes constraints on America’s freedom of action.

At this juncture, it’s worth considering ways in which cooperative international efforts to deal with climate change might facilitate cooperative efforts to reduce nuclear dangers in the future, especially in Asia. One of the distinguishing features of the Paris pact is that China and India have come on board, acknowledging the necessity to set emission targets that will be painfully difficult to meet. Both Asian giants were very reluctant participants at previous confabs. Both are counting on high growth rates for power projection. Beijing needs growth for domestic tranquility. And both countries are in a severe bind: large parts of Shanghai and Chennai could be underwater by mid-century, not to mention other low-lying areas. Growth fueled by fossil fuels is a short-term necessity, but comes with lasting and substantial costs.

Take, for example, the no-longer-hidden costs of terrible air quality. With research assistance from my colleagues at Stimson, Poorvie Patel and Akriti Vasudeva, I have a better understanding of the extent of this problem. Based on data from the year 2010, Johannes Lelieveld, the Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, and his colleagues published research findings in Nature estimating that 1.4 million Chinese die prematurely every year because of poor air quality. Another 650,000 Indian lives are shortened every year because of air pollution. Images of city dwellers trying to find their way through the haze of pollution are now emblems of modern life in China, India and Pakistan, which rank among the five worst countries in the world for air quality. Lelieveld and his team estimate that the global tally of premature deaths due to bad air is approximately 3.3 million human beings annually– a figure that could double by mid-century if the Paris pact is not implemented and if emissions continue to rise at the current rate.

If China and India were ever to find themselves in a limited nuclear exchange – an eventuality that I believe to be very remote – they could well suffer deaths and casualty counts similar to the numbers that Lelieveld has tabulated. Add to this the consequences of using more fossil fuels to spur economic growth on top of pollution caused by vehicular use and small fires started for domestic and agricultural purposes, and the yields or numbers of detonations from our hypothetical nuclear exchange grow accordingly. This cruel choice – to grow alongside rising death rates – can only be avoided by less toxic forms of energy generation, a transition that will take decades.

Pakistan has also been badly affected by climate change, where horrific floods and drought are facts of everyday life. The Max Planck Institute’s analysis estimates that Pakistan suffers approximately 110,000 premature deaths annually – approximately 13 times those lost in battle during all of Pakistan’s wars with India.

Bad air and water are already taking a large bite out of economic growth in China and India. An analysis by DARA suggests that China lost an equivalent of 1.4 per cent of its GDP to climate change in 2010. An Asian Development Bank analysis predicts that India will annually lose 1.8 percent of its GDP by 2050, due to climate change. Pakistan will likely suffer similar losses.

Chinese, Indian and Pakistani officials talk to each other about the risks associated with climate change. They do not talk to each other about nuclear risk reduction. If the costs of climate change warrant these conversations, so, too, do the costs of a nuclear arms competition and the consequences of nuclear detonations, whether accidental or purposeful. Climate change talks can also be one avenue to resuscitate U.S.-Russian relations. Only collaborative efforts and best practices across borders can make a dent into man-made climate change. The same holds true for nuclear risk reduction. Far-sighted leaders can use progress in one field to make inroads in the other.


  1. Ben D (History)

    Haha…a treaty to make the Earth’s climate not change beyond certain limits…Pigs may fly?

    Seriously, the so called climate change threat is a political movement that has little to do with the Earth’s climate and will not be effective to reduce climate change… Human produced CO2 has too little a contribution to the warming. Besides….the world has been warming since the end of the last ice age and so present glacier melt and rising sea levels are not extraordinary…and fall far below the rhetoric, IPCC model predictions, and hand waving from the pro agw activists..

    • Tim (History)

      I realize there are lots of delusional people out there, but the amount of human produced CO2 exceeds to total amount of CO2 that existed naturally. Expecting this to have no effect on the climate demonstrates a rather poor grasp of science.

    • Ben D (History)

      Oh the irony re poor grasp of science…..I see science is not your forte Tim… Human derived CO2 is about 3.75% of natural CO2….


    • Anon2 (History)


      Look up the Permian-Triassic Extinction anoxic event and CO2 and ocean acidification on Wikipedia and you will see the trigger is a CO2 rise, and then find and download this paper: “Combustion of available fossil fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet” by Ricarda Winkelmann,1,2,3* Anders Levermann,1,2 Andy Ridgwell,4,5 Ken Caldeira3 in Science Advancement 11 Sept 2015. (Available under creative commons.) Estimate how many gigatonnes of carbon (GtC02 = 3.7 * GtC) we will dump into the atmosphere before COP21 really kicks in at our current rate of burn of 10 GtC/year. Ignore the ocean rise from continued CO2 dumping (as populations can move over a 200 year+ time scale), and consider the ocean acidification from Winklemann’s atmospheric CO2 projection. The consensus says that about 10C to 12C of additional mean temperature rise, of which about 2C is already baked into the cake, would likely trigger an ocean anoxic event where excess amounts of H2S are produced, lethal to species. Therefore, we are living in a great laboratory science experiment where we cannot predict the outcome, but where one outcome that is possible, even likely, is an extinction event. Political movement or not, we have to carefully observe and as necessary make changes as we get more data.

  2. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    On a lighter note, physics, once the most right-wing of sciences (it gave us the bomb) is now seen as a massive left-wing conspiracy (since it agreed with some greenies). Apparently science wears team colours, and it’s perfectly ok to shout at it when it’s playing for the other team.

    Sometimes I despair of humanity’s ability to be at all rational and objective about anything. When the aliens invade, I’m turning traitor. We suck at ruling ourselves.

    On the other hand, progress is made. It’s slow and painful and somehow we take decades to do what should be done in months, but we seem to be getting better. Is it a short term aberration? Is it a pendulum that’ll only swing back and wipe out all our gains? I actually don’t think so. I think you can realistically chart a slow improvement in what I subjectively consider morality. Hey look! We’re not actually putting Muslims in internment camps. Only talking about it.

    So that’s hopeful.

  3. yousaf (History)

    There is still considerable uncertainty (in peer-reviewed science) regarding the sensitivity of the temperature excursion to CO2 concentration. The uncertainty shouldn’t be a excuse for passivity but it ought to be openly recognized.


    “ECS is defined as an increase in global mean surface temperature caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. The uncertainty of climate sensitivity poses one of the greatest challenges in planning strategies on how and to what extent we should cope with risks of climate change.”

    “Throughout IPCC’s 1st to 3rd Assessment Report, the likely range of ECS was estimated as 1.5–4.5 °C with its best estimate at 2.5 °C. The 4th Assessment Report (AR4) specified a likely range (greater than 66 % probability) of ECS as 2–4.5 °C with its “most likely value” or “best estimate” of 3 °C, but the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) lowered the figure to 1.5–4.5 °C.”

    “The current pledges of several countries including the U.S., EU and China on emission reductions beyond 2020 are not on track for the 2 °C target with an ECS of 3 °C but are compatible with the target with an ECS of 2.5 °C. It is critically important for policymakers in Paris to know that they are in a position to make decisions under large uncertainty of ECS.”

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The authors also point out, “the difference of marginal abatement cost (MAC) to attain 2 °C target due to the difference of ECS…. MAC in 2050 is estimated to be as high as $318/tCO2 under ECS of 3 °C, but it is merely $24/tCO2 if ECS is 2.5 °C.” That is, the cost of attaining a maximum temperature rise of 2 °C varies considerably, depending on the value of ECS. Since the ECS range is currently estimated at 1.5–4.5 °C, we are trusting to good luck if we simply presume that Nature has dealt us a low ECS. The time to act on global warming is now, not three decades from now, though we should have acted three decades ago.

      My understanding is that the current agreement relies on voluntary actions by most of the nations. If several nations fail to voluntarily carry out what they volunteered to do, the 2 °C target won’t be met, even if ECS is only 2.5 °C. We can only hope, five or ten years from now, that nations won’t regret having failed to make these voluntary actions mandatory.

      The usual economic prescription for a “negative externality” (such as global warming from greenhouse gas emissions) is to put a tax on it. In this case, the tax would need to be a global tax on all greenhouse gases. Another possible method is trade-able emissions permits. Either way, a cost is placed on emissions, leading people and companies to reduce their emissions in a cost-effective manner.

  4. Ben D (History)

    Nothing like a reality check for the UN IPCC agw science clime model global temperature prediction accuracy….the science is not settled and to spend the sort of money the UN wants on reducing man made CO2 based would be such a waste….


    • Ben D (History)

      Yikes!!…forgot to edit… clim(at)e ….and….’based’ needs deleting…

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      You also forgot to check what you were referencing. The blogger you linked to (because skeptics obviously take a blogger’s word over thousands of published papers because…. Scepticism) is using John Christy’s ridiculous graph. By amazing coincidence, he used balloon data from the mid-troposphere, which is well known to be heating at a much lower rate that the lower (which is not surprising and was well predicted in modelling).

      Well explained here: https://www.skepticalscience.com/congress-manufactures-doubt-denial-in-climate-hearing.html

      If you can’t see why this is dishonest, there’s no helping you.

      And in any case, what the hell, let’s throw the science right out. Let’s ignore all of that.

      This year looks to be the hottest year on record. In all of recorded human history, there has not been a year this hot. Scientists predicted unprecedented temperatures. But *you* think they did this with faulty science. That is was just sheer coincidence. You think the science is wrong, and instead the very result they predicted came along, by sheer luck, from some other source that you or anyone else has failed to explain. You think, having read some blogs, that you know more than thousands of scientists who have spent their careers on the subject. I mean, you don’t actually know what’s making the climate change…. But you DO know that all those people with the decades of expertise are all wrong.

      The hubris is staggering.

  5. tobiaspiechowiak (History)

    “Haha…a treaty to make the Earth’s climate not change beyond certain limits…Pigs may fly?”

    That’s exactly what I thought spontaneously, too. There are gaping holes in the understanding of what actually causes climate oscillations. And as long as these holes are not filled it does not make any sense to throw billions at some countermeasures that could be used better elsewhere e.g. poverty reduction.
    The big hydrogen bomb we call the sun probably has a much larger impact on climate than we thought.
    There were at least two times during the medieval time where global average temperatures were much higher than today. The vikings could grow wheat in Greeland until the 10th century which definitely is not possible today.

    Nuclear weapons still pose a much larger danger to mankind than “climate change” especially due to the tendency that more nations try to aspire some. This is especially true where local conflicts are already rampant and the threshold of use is decreased considereably…

    He, but probably menaces are a question of the Zeitgeist, too 😉

    • Dan Gilchrist (History)

      The SUN! Holy hell, we forgot THE SUN!!!

      Thank you, commenter on the internet. The combined scientists of the earth totally forgot about the existence of the sun. Well spotted. You have saved us all.

      Oh no, wait. Solar activity has been going down while temperatures rose.


      And yes, they know about the medieval warm period, too, having (at the very least) the ability to read blogs just like you. Turns out that wasn’t global.


      This stuff is really easy to look up. Plenty of actual papers are referenced in the links above.

      No-one ever made a name in science by agreeing with everyone. The scientist who overturns the massive amount of evidence behind climate change will be rich and famous. Every government on earth would love to believe that, since it’d get them off the hook. You, you personally, can go become a climate scientist and overturn the whole thing. Go! Do that! The world holds its breath.

      When the greenhouse effect was first being mooted, it was a fringe idea that was generally rejected. If your bizarre view of science – that everyone just goes along with the herd – then climate change science couldn’t have gotten off the ground in the first place. But it proved itself over the opposition, and bit by bit has become accepted by pretty much everyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

      But you go repeat well debunked memes from blogs. That’s cool too.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    A Russian Federation vs. People’s Republic of China railway launched missile arms race is starting?


  7. J_kies (History)

    Since we have some strongly held opinions on the climate stuff; let me ask, of all the ‘Satanic Gasses’ why do we emphasize the one that is hugely optically thick in all the major band-heads? CO2 has an OD of 1 in about a meter at STP in the 4.3 um band for example and not much OD in the LW band over the same distance. On the other hand CH4, NH3, NO2, NO3 and the plethora of organic pollutants are optically thin and adding any of these to the atmosphere directly impacts the greenhouse effect. H2O(g) is also a more effective greenhouse gas than CO2 due to the saturation of the CO2 absorption lines.

    What is the relative sensitivity to the radiative transport effect from surface to space to doubling or halving the concentrations of any of these gasses?

    • yousaf (History)

      The lifetime of the various gases also figures into the analysis: eg. CH4 is not as long lived as CO2 in the atmosphere, even though it is a far more powerful greenhouse gas while it is actually CH4 and not broken down.


    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Initially I thought this question would be difficult to research, but I see Wikipedia has put most of the answers in one place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas

      In terms of direct impact on global warming, water has a 36-72% impact, CO2 has a 9-26% impact, and CH4 (methane) has a 4-9% impact. Even though CH4, pound for pound, contributes far more to global warming, the concentration of CO2 (400 ppm) is more than 200 times greater than that of CH4 (1.8 ppm). There is far less CH4, partly because it is shorter lived and partly because less of it is emitted.

      Water vapor stays in the atmosphere only 9 days, so its concentration rapidly fluctuates and equilibrates. Human water activities have little direct impact on the total water vapor. However, as the other human-emitted greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, the atmosphere naturally retains more water. This additional water amplifies the warming impact of the other greenhouse gases.

  8. tobiaspiechowiak (History)

    The problem is that we simply don’t know exactly the mechanisms behind it. At least it is not a simple linear relationship and CO2 is not the only greenhouse-gas…
    Besides I have the impression that some of the scientist want to create a new priesthood on earth… at least it puts a lot of money into their pockets…