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Here is a letter I intend to mail in November. But I want you know about it now, to bring up an issue that is crucial to consider before you vote, and which has not received enough attention.
Dear President-Elect Biden,
I’m so happy that you were elected because in January you can start to address major problems in America. But before you deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, immigration, gun violence, and climate change, all of which are very important, I recommend that first you take immediate steps to lower the danger of nuclear war. You will be Commander in Chief, and there are several first steps you can take immediately to make the world safer.
In the early 1980s, I was one of the American and Russian scientists who, working together, discovered that in a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union smoke from fires ignited by nuclear explosions would block out the Sun, producing instant climate change, turning the Earth cold, dark and dry, killing plants and preventing agriculture for at least a year, producing global famine.
As I described in a New York Times op-ed on Feb. 11, 2016, this nuclear winter theory was accepted by presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and was instrumental in ending the nuclear arms race. But although the Russian and American nuclear arsenals have decreased, our research shows they can still produce a nuclear winter.
Furthermore, there are seven other nuclear nations now: China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Even a nuclear war between two with much smaller arsenals, such as India and Pakistan (one of the scariest scenarios, given continued conflict over Kashmir), could produce global climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and major impacts on the world food supply.
The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” This Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has now been ratified by 45 nations, and when it gets to 50, it will come into force, expressing the will of the world to rid us of this danger. When Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of ICAN, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2017, she said, “The story of nuclear weapons will have an ending, and it is up to us what that ending will be. Will it be the end of nuclear weapons, or will it be the end of us? One of these things will happen. The only rational course of action is to cease living under the conditions where our mutual destruction is only one impulsive tantrum away.”
We are lucky that for the past 75 years there has not been a second nuclear war. Here are the immediate steps you can take to make this even less likely:
1. Take U.S. land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert. This means no launch on warning. Any use of nuclear weapons requires deliberate thought, not immediate reaction during a time of panic and possible misinformation. As former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote in his book “The Button,” nuclear war is much more likely to start by accident than by a deliberate attack. We know of multiple cases where sensors or computers failed, training tapes were mistaken for a real attack, bombs were lost or dropped by planes, or humans misinterpreted radar or satellite signals. If you ever want to use nuclear weapons, our submarine-based missiles or aircraft could be used, and they are virtually invulnerable. The land-based missiles, which would have to be used within minutes of an attack, make the world more dangerous and do not provide us any additional deterrence or security. What a message of peace this will be to the world.
2. Give up the sole presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons. This means getting rid of the “football,” the launch codes always being carried by a military aid with the president for immediate use. Any use of nuclear weapons would need to have considered thought and deliberation. The Constitution says that only Congress can declare war, and this would be the most important such case ever. There is never a need to rush such a decision. It is important to make sure any attack is real, and that a decision is not made in haste. And there have been situations in the past when the president was in no shape to make such crucial quick decisions.
3. Extend the New START Treaty with Russia for another five years. You can do this without congressional approval, and the Russians have indicated they are in favor of extending the treaty. This will maintain our ability to inspect their arsenal, prevent another arms race and give you time to negotiate further nuclear weapons reductions.
4. 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. If military action is necessary, we can defend the United States with our modern, precision-guided weapons, which do not require the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. All options do not need to be on the table.
5. 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. 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.
In the longer term, there are additional steps you can take. Work with our allies, Russia, China and Iran to re-establish our participation in the Iranian agreement that prevents them from developing their own nuclear weapons, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Halt the nuclear modernization program that is scheduled to cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade. Sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will lead to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons as clearly stated by former presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, but toward which there has been little progress so far.
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. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock is now 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. Please help push it back.
Alan Robock, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of climate science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University and a member of the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction.