Climate Change International Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Alan Robock: The Terrifying Research Nuclear Powers Don’t Want You to See

Climate scientist Alan Robock, one of the authors of a groundbreaking Nature Food paper on the little-discussed impacts of nuclear war, talks to Robert Scheer about his work.
“LIFE IS OVER!” [Illustration by Mr. Fish]

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Humanity is, according to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” The warning, made at the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, arrives at a time of alarmingly heightened tensions around the world. Just a few days after Guterres made that statement, Nature Food published a harrowing scientific paper that drove home the UN Secretary General’s message: “Global food insecurity and famine from the reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection.” The paper (which you can read in full here) was written by a handful of leading experts who have spent years studying the potential impact of nuclear war on food supplies. The results are stark. 

Alan Robock.
Alan Robock. [Rutgers University]

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Alan Robock, a Rutgers University climate scientist and one of the authors of the groundbreaking Nature Food paper, joins host Robert Scheer to discuss its findings. Throughout the conversation, Robock issues a few warnings of his own. There is no case in which using nuclear weapons would not lead to mass death for several reasons, he says, including the weapons themselves and the climate change triggered by the nuclear smoke. This climate change would lead to a nuclear winter that would ultimately cause billions of people to starve to death. 

Although the climate scientist and his colleagues have been trying to sound the alarms as loudly as they can be based on their findings, they’ve found very little interest among some of the world’s biggest nuclear powers, including the U.S. In fact, Robock was unable to get any U.S. government funding for his critical research despite the clear urgency and importance of his work. Scheer, who visited Chernobyl after the nuclear plant disaster and interviewed American and Russian leaders and scientists throughout the Cold War, argues that the war in Ukraine is one of the biggest nuclear threats the world has faced since then. Listen to the full conversation between Robock and Scheer as they grapple with the cold hard facts that the scientist has found regarding any modern-day nuclear weapon use. 



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest. In this case, distinguished professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Environmental Science, Alan Robock, who’s well-known for his studies, among other things, of the effect, the possible effect, of nuclear war. And that’s in the news now, unfortunately. Because with the Ukraine invasion by Russia, and people don’t even seem to have the kind of caution we had during the Cold War, where, wait a minute, we’re talking about the possibility of nuclear war. There seems almost a giddiness, like bring it on, or they wouldn’t dare, or so forth.

And this study, which appeared in Nature Food, and I’ll let professor Robock introduce it, is a chilling study about not only the main area affected by the fighting with nuclear weapons, which of course, would kill all life down to cockroaches, but the climate effect that would cause, in the estimate of the article, under certain circumstances in Nature Food, maybe the end of a good chunk of humanity. So I’ll let Professor Robock introduce this study.

Robert Scheer:

And I just want to say in terms of my own connection, I used to cover this issue when I was at the LA times. And I also was in Chernobyl a year after, I think I was the first us print reporter there and the terror that was felt over a peaceful nuclear plant, which by the way, these plants are now under the threat of fighting. And here we’re talking about actual war. So I’ll let you introduce your study, why you did it now and what the conclusions are.

Alan Robock:

Hi, my name’s Alan Robock. I’m a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I’m trained as a meteorologist and I’ve been working on climate change for my entire career, for almost 50 years, and 40 years ago I discovered that nuclear war could cause climate change. If bombs are targeted on cities and industrial areas, they’ll burn and they’ll produce smoke, which will go up into the atmosphere. Some of it will end up in the stratosphere, that’s the layer above where we live, and there’s no rain there to wash it out and it will be blown around the world and lasts for years. The sun will heat up these black particles and lift them up and that will help them stay there for a long time.

There was a team of American scientists, Turka, Toon, Ackerman, Pollock and Sagan, who calculated how cold it would get at the surface and a team of Russian scientists, Alexander, Roffe and Stenchicoff, who did the same thing and both of them found there would be nuclear winter. Temperatures would get below freezing, even in the summertime, because the smoke would absorb so much sunlight if there was a war between the US and the Soviet Union. This information was accepted by Reagan and Gorbachev, and it helped motivate them to end the nuclear arms race. And the number of nuclear weapons on earth has been going down ever since.

But those aren’t the only two countries with nuclear weapons anymore. There are seven other ones. Two of them, India and Pakistan, are neighbors and are always having skirmishes and even little wars in conflict about Cashmere, a territory in between them. About 17 years ago, I ran into Rich Turko and Brian Toon at a conference and they said we were calculating how much smoke there would be if India and Pakistan had a nuclear war, it would be less than 1% of the global nuclear arsenal, but we’ve calculated there might be 5 million tons of smoke. And they asked me to calculate the climate response, which I did with my student, Luke Oman and Yerge Stenchicoff, by then, was working with me in the United States. And he was also a co-author and we found it wouldn’t be nuclear winter, temperatures wouldn’t get below freezing, but it would be a huge climate change, colder than the little ice age. Climate change unprecedented in recorded human history.

So I’ve talked about temperature so far, which is of course important, but what we really care about is how much food is there? And so since then, we’ve been trying to calculate what the impacts would be on food. We have had trouble getting funding for this work. We’ve asked all the different us government agencies to fund us, the Defense Department that has the nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy, used to be the Atomic Energy Commission, which makes the atomic nuclear bombs, Homeland Security, even the Intelligence Service, none of them wanted to fund us. We asked National Science Foundation, that normally funds our work and is still funding me to do climate research, it’s funded me my whole career. No.

So we sort of did this on the side, but five years ago, I talked to a program manager for the Open Philanthropy Project, which is funded by Dustin Moskowitz and his wife, Carrie Tuna, who are Facebook billionaires, and they’re trying to help solve problems that might really be dangerous to the world. And they gave us generous funding, which we’ve been using for the past five years and we really expanded our research. Brian Toon at University of Colorado and I have been leading this. And we’ve been calculating how the food might change. And so this new paper took different scenarios of how India and Pakistan might fight a nuclear war. Now they have more weapons than they did 15 years ago, and they’re bigger and the targets are bigger. And we also looked at the United States and Russia, and we got a range of five to 150 million tons of smoke would go up into the stratosphere.

And then we took a state of the art crop model that calculates how crops change based on changes of temperature, sunlight, and rain and we did that for every country in the world, the major grain crops, corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans and we looked at grass, which is food, pasture for animals, that livestock that eat grass, the ruminants that is cows and sheep. And we calculated for every country, how much food there would be after the climate changes caused by these different levels of nuclear war. Every country has a different diet. And so we did it separately for each country. We assume that trade between countries would stop, that they would hoard their food, just like we all hoarded toilet paper a couple years ago. And we calculated this, after the food is used up, the amount of food in storage is only about a couple months on average around the world. And we calculate how people would fare and it turns out there wouldn’t be enough food.

And so for each country, we looked at it for the different scenarios. For a war between the US and Russia, more than 5 billion people could starve to death. For a war between India and Pakistan, more than 2 billion people could starve to death. And this is in addition to the people that would be killed by the horrific direct effects of nuclear war that we all know about. Blast, radioactivity, fire. More than a factor of 10 more people would die from these indirect effects, far away from the bombs, than would die from the direct effects.

Robert Scheer:

This is important because I wrote a book once, With Enough Shovels when the Reagan administration, and before that actually, the first president Bush, when he was a candidate was talking about winnable nuclear war and so forth. And they came to their senses actually and it was Reagan who negotiated with Gorbachev and there was actually some talk of getting rid of all of that. But now in this season, suddenly we have realignment and of the emergence of new Cold War, nuclear weapons are kind of, okay, they’ll be used, but they’ll be smaller. They’ll be controlled but maybe they won’t be used, even though now the Russians are described as they’re not communists, but they’re described as irrational and Putin is certainly. We’re counting on them to be rational.

So I wonder if you could just set that stage, it must drive you kind of crazy, as somebody who’s aware of the risks and the costs, that it’s not even being discussed in the media or by leading politicians or anyone. And your study itself was shocking. Alarming study printed in a very prestigious publication, Nature Food, hasn’t sparked much debate and discussion since it came out a few weeks ago.

Alan Robock:

It was only eight days ago that it came out. But yeah, we have gotten a lot of attention in the media and people like you are asking me about it, so I’ve been doing more interviews than ever before. So I’m glad that it is getting some attention. But in the 1980s, people were really afraid of nuclear war and there were huge marches in democratic countries demanding that we end the arms race, people were really afraid. Nowadays, people have other concerns. First of all, it’s been 77 years since the first nuclear war. Most people, very few people are alive today that were alive then. Nobody remembers it. People assume that there’s never been a nuclear war in their lifetime and it’ll never happen again. So that’s why they’re not worried about it. In the 1980s, the Russians were our enemies and they were threatening us. And so people just have other concerns. They’re concerned about COVID, they’re concerned about their jobs, they’re concerned about their kids getting educated, they’re concerned about the price of gas and nuclear war is pretty far down on their list of things they’re concerned with.

Robert Scheer:

Well, they also claim, at least our political class at our media, they’re concerned about the freedom of Ukrainians. And yet we’re talking about, we have to visit humiliation upon Putin and the Russians and the possibility of this nuclear armed country with this massive arsenal in Russia that has survived this Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, the possibility of their using weapons and with even talk so, they would be tactical, they would be smaller. I think we have to confront that. We just don’t have adults watching the store when it comes to nuclear weapons anymore. I mean, even with Iran.

Alan Robock:

I agree. Putin suggested that he would put his nuclear weapons on high alert a few months ago. That got people’s attention. It turns out nothing happened because they’re always on high alert. The US didn’t do anything in reply. So I think a lot of that was for domestic consumption, but there’s no evidence that they’re going to be used. And you mentioned before, tactical smaller nuclear weapons, there’s no such thing as a small nuclear weapon. The ones that was dropped on Hiroshima, which was small by today’s standards, is a thousand times bigger than the biggest conventional weapon. So any nuclear weapon would produce mass genocide. It’s designed to kill everybody within a certain region. It’s not pinpointed, targeted, at a military target. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to use it even in warfare.

And furthermore, if nuclear weapons are ever used, there’s no way to guarantee that there won’t be any escalation. There are war games played between retired generals, between US and Russians or Indian and Pakistani. And they say, okay, the other country uses one nuclear weapon on the battlefield against your tanks, what are you going to do? In very few cases do they say, I’m so shocked. I’m not going to do anything, I’m going to resist from retaliating with nuclear weapons. But in other cases, well, I’ll use another nuclear weapon on them just to show them. And it rapidly escalates into all the weapons being used. So that’s really scary. Any use of nuclear weapons could produce a global disaster.

Robert Scheer:

Well, but when I used the word giddy or giddiness in covering this now, we were very wary of during the cold war to talk about humiliation. The MAD doctrine, Mutual Assured Destruction. We wanted to have the other side, whatever it was, bethink that this could be avoided. And now there seems to be just the opposite. There’s no negotiation about ending this war in the Ukraine. There’s just talk about punishment, humiliation, and so forth. And what I’m worried about, with all nuclear arm powers, including France, England, United States, putting weapons into Ukraine. Now they’re targeting, evidently, the Russian Federation. And if something with conventional weapons ends up killing a lot of people and they also might seem to be losing the war, you could see where there would be a temptation to use nuclear weapons.

I mean, when I used to attend those conferences and arms control sessions and try to cover them as a journalist, you would hear people say, well, why do we build these weapons if we can’t use them? And I’m sure, I mean, I’ve interviewed hawks in the United States, as well as in the old Soviet Union and they used to talk about, of course under a desperate circumstance, you would use them. And if we’re branding all of the Russian leadership now as war criminals, and they’ll be taken out in handcuffs and have their Nuremberg trial and so forth, it would seem to me there might be an incentive to use these weapons.

Alan Robock:

But our research shows that would be crazy. Brian Toon and I wrote a paper called Self Assured Destruction. What I mean is that if the United States used their nuclear weapons on Russia and Russia didn’t do anything, didn’t attack us back, we would all starve to death. It would be the actions of a suicide bomber. Enough smoke would be generated that it would cause global climate change and affect our ability to eat our food. So you can’t use them.

They say, oh, I don’t ever want to use them, they’re just for deterrents. They’re to stop people from attacking me, as you just mentioned, mutual assured destruction. But for deterrents to work, a couple things have to be true. First of all, it can never fail. That means there can never be an accidental use of nuclear weapons and we’ve come very close a number of times, the closest was probably the Cuban missile crisis. I even had the surreal experience of being invited by Fidel Castro to go down to Cuba and give a talk about nuclear winter and I sat across the table from him a couple times talking about this. And Cuba realizes how horrific they would be and they were one of the first countries to sign the treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

So it has to never be an accident. And we’ve come close. Bill Perry was woken up in the middle of the night, he was a defense secretary and, “We’re under attack, wake up the president.” And it turns out they had put a training tape in to the computer that was used to detect Russian attacks. A Russian saw five missiles heading to Russia on their radar and it looked to him, Stanislav Petrov, he said, that doesn’t look right. And it turns out it was a reflection off of clouds and fortunately he didn’t start a nuclear war. And bombs have been dropped. And who knows all the close calls that have never been told about. So that has to be perfect.

The other thing for deterrents to work is you have to believe that your enemy is a suicide bomber, that they’re going to be willing to kill themselves to deter you. So it drives me crazy. It makes no sense at all.

Now, as we mentioned, there’s nine countries with nuclear weapons. What can we learn from all the other 190 countries that don’t have nuclear weapons that decided that we better off without them? Some of them of course, are in alliances with nuclear nations, such as NATO, but many, many of them are not. There are no nuclear weapons in the southern hemisphere, for example. So I hope that our work, the horrific indirect effects, more than 10 times the number of people would die than the direct effects. And far away from the bombs would motivate people. It has so far. In fact, the treaty to ban nuclear weapons, the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons passed the United Nations five years ago. Before that I and my colleagues went and gave talks at conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. I went to one in Oslo, one in Mexico, Mike Mills went to one in Vienna and more than a hundred countries attended. And they realized that they would suffer so much if there was a nuclear war on the other side of the world, and this motivated them to pass this treaty. 66 countries have ratified it so far. And so they’re trying to get the nine nuclear nations to listen to them.

And I hope that our work, which helped motivate that, and by the way, the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, ICAN, got the Nobel peace prize in 2017 for warning the world about this and for getting this ban treaty through. More and more countries are signing the treaty and I hope that our new work will help that go faster.

Robert Scheer:

There was something that happened in the Cold War that allowed us to get serious arms control efforts. And that was the recognition that these weapons could be used. And it wasn’t just that Mao, who actually didn’t have them very early on but that was developing them or that the Iranians might use them, but this massive arsenal in the hands of the Soviet Union could be used. And they became convinced that the United States could use them. And that’s why when Reagan and Gorbachev met, Ronald Reagan who had played around with the Star Wars defense, and you know, there could be nuclear warfare, I know I interviewed him about this at some lengths. He became convinced, no, it cannot be controlled. It cannot be defended.

So you had a situation where somebody like Richard Nixon, who had made a whole career out of stoking the Cold War, he was one of the first, when he was Eisenhower’s vice president to begin negotiations with the Soviets. And then Nixon went and had negotiations with Mao Tse-tung and basically broke the back of the Cold War. Right now, we seem to have the opposite mood. It’s like, bring it on. We have to humble Putin. We have to teach them a lesson.

Are you not getting any of that sense at all? I know this is not your specialty, but I know you speak at the UN and you travel quite extensively. Don’t you get the sense that the alarm that was felt in the 1980s about possibility of nuclear war, call it accidental if you want, that now people just don’t even talk about it much? I mean, I want to give you credit for your study and it has provoked some discussion, but where is the peace movement on this? There doesn’t seem to even be a faction in Congress of any of Democrats or Republicans. Ed Markey, who made a reputation when he was in the house, he’s now a Senator, of being very concerned about nuclear arms control. He now seems to be provoking greater attention with Russia. Is this not the case?

Alan Robock:

You’ve asked a lot of questions. Senator Markey seems to me in my interactions with him is very much anti-nuclear, is aware of our work, but he’s one of the lone voices. During the last election, the democratic candidates, I attended a debate between all of them, the only one who even mentioned nuclear weapons was the other Senator from Massachusetts. What’s her name?

Robert Scheer:

Oh, Elizabeth Warren. Sorry.

Alan Robock:

Yeah. Elizabeth Warren. And she said I’m against first use of nuclear weapons. She should be against second and third use too. But she’s the only one that even mentioned it. Everybody else says, well, all options are on the table. Which makes it very dangerous for us. But yeah, I don’t see the peace movement as strong as it was before.

Robert Scheer:

Let me be a little bit confrontational. I don’t see any peace movement and I’ve always respected Ed Markey, but he went off to the Ukraine after Nancy Pelosi and it seemed, to me, stoked attention. I don’t hear anybody calling for negotiations or pressing the need. I mean, we negotiated with Khrushchev, we negotiated with Mao, why can’t we negotiate with Putin? And why isn’t the question of nuclear weapons front and center in this? There’s fighting around these peaceful civilian nuclear plants right now. And as I said, I went into Chernobyl a year after a bunch of Ukrainian and Russian scientists, they were all part of Soviet union with American scientists. It was even a year later, absolute panic about what you have. Some of these plants, the biggest plant actually, in Europe under possible shelling right now. And there doesn’t seem to be much concern. Maybe you’re being overly optimistic.

Alan Robock:

I’m not sure who you’re talking about who’s not doing what you want. Obviously Biden is the president. And I haven’t heard him say anything against nuclear weapons, which he was against more when he was a Senator and vice president. So I leave it to him. Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize and said he wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, but he really didn’t do anything about it. President George H.W. Bush is the one that lowered our arsenal more than anybody else, any other president, that was without a treaty with Russia.

But I think if you’re talking about the situation with Ukraine, I would not criticize America. I would criticize Putin. He’s the one that started. He’s the one that launched an attack on a peaceful country and started killing people. He’s the evil person here, not us. I mean, why is it our fault that he’s fighting a war in Ukraine? And don’t you think we should help the Ukrainians defend themselves?

Robert Scheer:

This was the argument in the Cold War. I mean, Mao was evil. Khrushchev was evil. After all, what was he doing putting weapons in Cuba? And the reality was, whether you think they’re evil or not, and obviously there are profound differences about all this, that once nuclear weapons are there, present, you better be thinking in different terms. And I’m just thinking now, you produce this truly alarming, you and your team, alarming report. And we’re not even talking about the direct impact of weapons, the Hiroshima, Nagasaki, much smaller than what we have now and so forth. We’re talking about the collateral damage ending much of human life. And all I’m suggesting is that during the Cold War, Ronald Reagan called, when I interviewed him, he said, the Russians are monsters. They think you can win a nuclear war. He thought they believed in civil defense and they would conquer and use them.

But Reagan believed all of that at one point, when I interviewed him in 1980, but then as president, he came to a different conclusion and recognized, hey, we better negotiate with Gorbachev and we better do something here. What I’m saying is, and this is not your field of expertise, I understand, but you’re very active on this issue. And it seems to me what you just said just a few minutes ago. Okay, so let’s say it’s all Putin’s fault, but what if they don’t see it that way? What if they are being, you used the word, mad? What if they let their nationalism or their rhetoric or whatever, get in their heads. And what if they think they’re going to be let out as war criminals, they’re humiliated, they lose a war and what are they going to be let off in handcuffs? Or are they going to possibly do, after all we didn’t have any such necessity when we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We did that. We could argue about why we did it, but it certainly was not existential requirement of our survival. And you just actually made the statement that I think goes to the heart of the matter. If we leave it up to the other side, if we’d done that in the Cold War, there would’ve been no arms control.

Alan Robock:

Well, let me say a couple things. First of all, the number of nuclear weapons has been going down and there are a lot fewer than there were in the 1980s. Yet our work shows there’s still enough to produce a nuclear winter. There was so much overkill that there are still like 16 bombs in the US and Russia for every possible target. And so we have massive overkill. We can still produce enough smoke to have nuclear winter. And people have to realize that the problem has not gone away.

Also, in order for the New Start Treaty to be approved by the Senate, Obama had to agree to a massive modernization of our nuclear arsenal. And now we’re planning to spend more than a trillion dollars to modernize it. A lot of people are making a lot of money doing that and they have armies of lobbyists. So what are us poor college professors supposed to do? We don’t have those resources. And so we try to educate people, but if you’re getting elected in Congress depends on you’re satisfying these people that are giving you money and claiming that though there’s jobs in your congressional district, it’s a really difficult thing to work against.

Robert Scheer:

Well, I mean, we’re going to need to wrap this up. And by the way, we should talk more about how people could read this report. And if you have a college library card, you can get Nature Food.

Alan Robock:

No, no, no, no, no, no. Very few libraries have a subscription to Nature Food, but our papers open access. So anybody in the world can just download it. If you go to my website, my name is R-O-B-O-C-K, you can easily find it with Google, go to latest publications, click on there, you can download it. So it’s available for free to everybody.

Robert Scheer:

Okay. That’s, right?

Alan Robock:

Yeah. That’s my email address.

Robert Scheer:

Yeah, and we’ll put it up on ScheerPost also, or links to it, but I want to conclude this because I think we’ve kind of stumbled upon what is really the big problem right now is that people say either one of two things and one, no one would ever use these weapons and so forth. And so we should have more arms control, and then there are people who think you can use smaller weapons. But the other is, in the one same breath we say, well Putin, for example, right now, he’s out of control. Who knows? Maybe he’s got mental problems. He’s certainly in the hands of a very strong nationalist and so forth his in own country. There were people who said similar things about Trump having his potential finger on the button, the instability of these world leaders. And then suddenly in the discussion, and I think this is why we have no serious peace movement, not just in this country, but in Western Europe. Germany, for example, used to be very strong. Now Germany is developing more weapons and they’re going to be quite tough on these things. Certainly you’re not getting much in France and England. There doesn’t seem to be a visible peace movement.

And I just wonder, I use this word giddy, whether, and why I wanted to do this podcast after reading your paper, it scared me. And having been at Chernobyl, I see even a so-called peaceful plan when it goes haywire, people don’t know what to do. And they didn’t. They were scared and now how do you control it? Now we’re in a situation where some of these plants may actually be attacked, intentionally or not. And at the same time, we’re talking about making the leader of a nuclear armed nation, Putin, desperate, humiliated, faced with war crime trial as well. And there is no talk at all about having negotiation. And if Ed Markey has called for that, I haven’t seen it anywhere, not to put him on the spot. But no, he waded right in and the need for more of confrontation. So where is this peace moment?

Alan Robock:

I’ve heard calls for negotiations. That’s the only way that this is ever going to end, unless it’s going to end tragically with what we’re discussing. So the Non-proliferation Treaty has a review conference every five years and it’s going on right now at the United Nations. I went there last week. I gave a presentation about my new work. The ambassador from Austria, Alexander Command, who’s been a leader on the Band Treaty, organized it along with Princeton University. It was all peace movement people, non governmental people that filled the room. There were none of the ambassadors that were there to negotiate. So I’m trying to make them aware of it, but they really aren’t interested. They’re interested in maintaining the status quo. The P5, the countries that first had nuclear weapons are still running things and even though this treaty commits them, in article six, to denuclearize to get rid of, to abolish nuclear weapons they continue to ignore it. So that’s what’s frustrating, but I’m trying to educate them. I scared you. I was trying to scare them too, but not yet.

Robert Scheer:

Okay. And I think that’s the takeaway really here. You have reminded us that these weapons cannot be used without destroying the world. They cannot be contained. And here is where we have a disagreement. I think the current mood and moment is more dangerous than it was at the height of the Cold War. Because when I went and interviewed people at that time, in the 1980s and before, there was even people like Edward Teller with his Star Wars, even Ronald Reagan, when he entertained the idea, or when I talked to people on the Soviet side who could be quite belligerent, there was a recognition that if you have these weapons in play … Now, clearly Putin has thrown down that possibility and they are in play, whether by accident or not. And it’s not, of course, just the two superpowers.

And I don’t know, I guess this is not the point of your paper and I don’t want to use it that way, but it just seems to me, one could make, and I am making the case, that this is the most dangerous moment in the nuclear arms race. Hopefully I’m all wrong. And I’m just being an alarmist. I’ll let you have the last word.

Alan Robock:

Well, I hope that people that read our paper learn about it and realize that nuclear weapons can’t be used. And why do we keep them? Why are we going to spend a trillion dollars modernizing weapons we can’t use? There’s a lot better way to spend that money. And why should Iran even listen to us tell them not to have nuclear weapons? It’s like you’re sitting in a bar telling people not to drink. If we think we need them, doesn’t that mean every country needs them? The whole thing drives me crazy. And I hope some sanity will prevail.

Robert Scheer:

Well, but again, I’ll let you have the last word. The very use of the word modernization. We are modernizing our fleet, our nuclear weapons. The Russians claim they’ve done some modernization. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But modernization of these weapons is the opposite of arms control. It means that you are going to make them usable. And I just think it’s naive. And maybe it’s because I had these conversations with Ronald Reagan and Edward Teller, and the physicist Velnokoftyn. And I just remember when very rational, smart people on both sides of that Cold War would make the case that there was circumstances in which you could use these weapons. And I believe that there’s a logic to it. Why are you modernizing something that can’t be used?

Alan Robock:

Well, our work shows that you’re right, that they can’t be used. And if they used, it would be a tragedy for the whole world. I just hope more people learn that and figure it out. And will there be marches, anti-nuclear marches in the streets soon? I don’t know how to organize that. I wish there were.

Robert Scheer:

Okay. Well, anyway, you ought to be applauded for your study. I think anybody who reads that study would understand why modernization is an oxymoron, it’s nonsense and dangerous. But that’s it, all the time we have. And again, go to to get this study. As they say, I’ve already put it up on- No, the actual study, just go to It’s really important to get into this issue and spread it around. And I want to thank you, Alan Robock, distinguished professor Department of Environmental Science at Rutgers University for doing this five decades of great work, four decades. Want to thank Christopher Ho and Laura Conduragen at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica and LA, for carrying these podcasts. We’re getting them up. Joshua Scheer, our executive editor who finds our guests and puts it all together. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introduction and general editing. And the KW foundation, which in the memory of Gene Stein, a terrifically independent important journalist, for providing some funding to help do these podcasts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.


  1. Sorry to spoil the party here but, if the “bigwigs” create any type of situation that will lead up to a nuclear war, there is absolutely nothing anybody (including everyone listening to as well as reading this) can do to stop it.
    Organize, vote, have town hall meetings, maybe even a short lived protest or two; you have no say. It’s their system, created by them and for them.
    The rest of us all just happened to be born into it.

    1. Sorry to say you are correct. At this point we likely have to depend on blind luck.

    2. How is it possible that the masses, including many smart highly educated people still don’t grasp this simple and obvious truth.

      WE DON”T GET A SAY. It’s really not that hard a concept.

    3. Agreed, the approved approaches of voting and controlled protests haven’t worked. What would work? Ten million people descending on DC and creating a new Constitution that serves the citizenry? The original Constitution was written by aristocrats to serve themselves and it has successfully served oil, coal, railroad, steel, tech, banking and weapons barons. Citizens want free healthcare, but weapons barons want $40b sent to Ukraine. Our democracy needs fixed. No one would vote for nuclear war.

      1. We the People have been deeply pitted against each other by class and race. We spent the past quarter-century talking about it. Surely you heard: “Congress knows that universal health care makes no sense in a country that denies basic human rights to food and shelter to so many left jobless,” for example. Or did you?

    4. Robock may be a smart climate scientist but unfortunately has swallowed the US Koolaid propaganda demonizing Putin and Russia, a topic he obviously knows NOTHING about.
      Russia was definitely provoked. Hostilities were not instigated by the Russians commencing 24/2/2022, hostilities were instigated by the USA at least since 2013/14 when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Ukrainian Yanukovych government and installed extreme right wing fanatics in the ukrogovernment who started to ban the Russian language and glorify Stepan Bandera, a psycho who wore the SS Nazi uniform and murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, gypsies etc in WW2. In 2014 the Ukronazis burned to death 48 ethnic Russians in the trade union building in Odessa, triggering the demand of the Donbass ethnic Russians to secede from western Ukraine. The ukronazis then bombarded and shelled Donbass for 8 years, killing 14,000 civilians according to UN figures. All this time Putin was trying to negotiate a peaceful outcome with Minsk 1 and 2, but was blocked at every turn by the US and NATO. In the weeks before 24/2/2022 there was a buildup of around 80,000 western Ukrainian forces, all trained by NATO, on the border of Donbass and they increased their shelling of Donbass by 30+ times, obviously intending to invade Donbass. Putin was forced to act to prevent the mass slaughter of ethnic Russians in Donbass.. Furthermore the Russians came to learn of the 30+ pathogen biolabs in ukraine funded by the USA, a fact admitted by Victoria Nuland herself. There were no WMDs in Iraq but there definitely were WMDs in the making in Ukraine.
      Did you know that”Ukraine” means “borderland” and prior to the breakup of the USSR that area was considered culturally and ethnically indistinguishable from Russia proper? Did you know that the proto-Russians, the Rus, the founders of the Russian nation, were the original founders and builders of the city of Kiev and were hence called the Kievan Rus? Kiev is the founding city of mother Russia and many other so-called Ukrainian cities are historically, ethnically and culturally Russian. Those areas ended up in Ukraine by a quirk of gerrymandering committed by Kruschev.
      For example Odessa is considered historically a Russian city and no doubt many of their inhabitants today want to be freed from the terror of the ukronazis.

  2. The only solution to these multi-‘Issue’ problems is to recognize that the Global War to control the fast-coming Global Empire can not be fought with “Bomb Power” [Garry Wills 2010] because there cannot be any winner — but with ‘Global Propaganda Power’, which of course lies with America (which it dominates through the English language, media, and Western geopolitical political fortune of dumb luck).

    IMHO, the best luck for our world at this point, relative to William Robinson’s “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity” [2014] would seem to be to change the ‘weak tea’ facade of; SRI and ESG failures to achieve anything with respect to leveling America’s “We’re #1”, “We’re #1”, “We’re #1” GINI Coefficient of Wealth Inequality death-march into a progressive democratic social political-economic system based and balanced over time with PEP (Positive Externality Profits) — instead of the SRI and ESG ‘rope a dope’ continuations that could lead to a far fairer, but seemingly aggressive program of “Wealth Reform” capped at $25M.

    The pyramid must be lowered and based on:


    1. BTW, William Robinson’s latest, “Can Global Capitalism Endure?” [August 7th, 2022 Kindle edition] is self-evident IMHO.

  3. Besides going to Ukraine, Sen. Markey also went to Taiwan, which visit arguably increased international tension and nuclear war likelihood.

  4. It is a worry that some notable sources (like the Smithsonian) have produced studies that talk so cavalierly about having a “small nuclear war” to solve global warming by causing a “small” nuclear winter.

    We have really reached the age of “DUMB” on steroids.

  5. Well shit. If it’s pointless to even get off one’s fucking ass to do something about the problems of this world, then we better get to getting high, drinking booze, watching tv, and playing video games. Then, even though we’d be doing exactly what the ruling elites want us to, at least we’d get our rocks off. Long live apathy!

  6. Wow. Robock is so out of touch it borders on delusion. I just sent him this email:

    Professor Robock – I just listened to your interview with Bob Scheer, and frankly, was astounded at some of your remarks.

    Your original research documenting nuclear winter help spawn a huge global anti-nuclear movement and had impacts on politics and policy.

    In contrast, your current research has had no impact. Zero.

    The current climate is pro-War, with zero consideration of nuclear risks. There is no peace or anti-nuclear movements or protests.

    Senator Markey flew to Taiwan to stoke confrontation with China. He has done nothing on diplomacy.

    You need to recognize this reality and speak critically of those responsible in government and corporate positions of power.


    1. In response to your comment “There is no peace or anti-nuclear movements or protests.”
      Just because the mainstream corporate media does not cover antinuke protests, does not mean they do not exist.
      How about this:
      ARTICLE FROM RICHMOND The Mercury News
      Richmond: ‘The Golden Rule’ embarks on 15-month, 11,000-mile anti-nuclear mission
      Activists have fought for nuclear disarmament onboard the wooden sailboat since 1958

      PHOTO; Helen Jaccard, documents the journey of the Golden Rule on Facebook Live as the vessel is lifted from the water in preparation for a cross-country journey to Minnesota at the Svendsen’s Marina in Richmond, CA on Monday, August 29, 2022. Originally setting sail in 1958 to put an end to nuclear weapon testing in the Marshall Islands, the restored ship picks up its mission to continue efforts to end nuclear proliferation, and is scheduled to return to the Bay Area in 2023. (Don Feria for Bay Area News Group)

      By KATIE LAUER | | Bay Area News Group
      PUBLISHED: August 29, 2022 at 4:07 p.m. | UPDATED: August 30, 2022 at 2:54 a.m.
      “RICHMOND – The Golden Rule was the first boat out of the water at Svendsen’s Bay Marine boatyard Monday morning. As the San Francisco Bay’s waves lapped at the 30-foot wooden ketch sailboat around 8 a.m., a mechanical lift swaddled the vessel’s port and starboard sides, scooped the boat out of the water and nestled it onto a semi-truck trailer, where it will be docked for the next week.”

      The Golden Rule set sail on Richmond’s streets just before noon on Monday, embarking on a 2,000 mile trip east to complete “The Great Loop” — a path that starts on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, winds around Florida, up the East Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, pivots into Maine, down through the Hudson River, and, finally, around the Great Lakes.” I
      She will arrive in the Minneapolis/St Paul area soon for launching into the Mississippi River. Programs and events are planned.

      In the words of Henry Giroux:
      Power is global and politics is local. That must change. We need a new language for understanding new global power formations as well as new international modes of politics to fight them.

      Social movements must move outside of national boundaries and join with others across the globe to fight the savagery of neoliberal global politics and central to such a task is the work of intellectuals, artists, cultural workers, and others who can fashion new tools and social movements in the fight against the current anti-democratic threats being imposed all over the globe.”

      The Golden Rule Project is a program of Veterans for Peace.

  7. Again beyond the smokescreen of debate we see the absolute, irrefutable proof of our Masters’ policy: thermonuclear omnipotence for the One Percent, ecogenocidal extermination for 90 percent of the 99 Percent, permanent slavery for the few survivors.

    Note too that from our Masters’ perspective, nuclear winter is the (perfect) antidote to global warming.

  8. We’ve watched Biden alternate between trying to provoke war with Russia via Ukraine and trying to provoke war with China via Taiwan, first one and then the other, back and forth. Two of the three world nuclear super-powers. I am stunned by the general lack of concern about this.


      I’m not so sure it’s “lack of concern.” IMO it’s related to the general malaise. Polls show a large majority in the U.S. is worried about climate change and environmental degradation. Most see the econ and pol systems work only for the few.

      Add the constant bombardment of context free upsetting sound bites and images. Plus elections where the entire campaign of the two major parties is trying to scare us into voting for their candidate. In contrast to FDR, the only thing they offer is fear itself.

      Huge problems way too big for isolated and alienated individuals to grapple with. How many could then muster the wherewithal to think clearly about a WWIII with nukes?

      The only responses are to be overwhelmed and frozen like a deer in the headlights or to seek distraction in games and gossip.

    2. There are few limits to.the stupidity arrogance of the ruling class in the US.They are willing able to end the world as we know it in search.of power and profit.It will.not.change until millions and millions speak out and act out.their rage.and frustration with Capitalism and inequality.

      1. “americans prefer to be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom”. Tocqueville …obviously all Marxists consider equality to be an aristocratic value…have you ever read a Marxist?

  9. Liz Truss, Brit. prime ministerial candidate interviewed on her use of nuclear weapons – “I think it’s an important duty of the Prime Minister. I’m ready to do that”.
    Large round of applause follows.
    She then reinforces her point – “I’m ready to do it”.
    More applause.

    Factually, when faced with such a decision, she might not.
    What captures one’s attention is the applause she gets.

    Clearly none of these self-identifying fools have no knowledge of the effects of the two nuclear weapons on Japan or other radiation disaster and the outcomes on people.
    Nuclear Winter driven largely by the resultant huge fires, the collapse of photosynthesis and mass starvation to follow has been well modeled.
    Of this they also know nothing.

    During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US Okinawan Group which controlled 20 Martin Marietta / GE nuclear armed cruise missiles (aimed at Russia and China) received the Go-Code from The Pentagon.
    They refused the launch order.
    The Washington Elites seem to know about this. When Mike Pence as Vice President was visiting a US nuclear launch facility, he sought assurances that “the boys” would follow instructions if the launch order came.

    As for Liz Truss and her class, anyone answering as she does should be immediately arrested and sent off to a re-education camp.
    Like, her decisions effect the rest of Humanity, virtually none of whom voted for her or ever would.

    Exhibit A of a high functioning individual who is, for practical purposes, insane.

    As for Alan Robock and his grip on contemporary political events, time to take time off for some research into Western foreign proxy wars. The crazies in the basement are closer to home.

  10. Alan Robock, a Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers is recognized universally as an important climatologist. His warnings about the use, even the continued existence, of nuclear weapons deserves attention and respect. Obviously, Robock is one smart guy.

    And yet he is also a victim of the extraordinary fact that virtually all mass media in this country has refused to report on the background to the war in Ukraine. Certainly, what happened at the end of the cold war is complex, but to give one important example the West, led by the US, indicated that if the Soviets would allow German unification NATO would not expand, in words attributed to James Baker “one inch eastward.” (Then, with what followed, NATO began a never-ending attempt to surround Russia.)

    As a result, after Scheer suggested that the refusal of the West, essentially led by the US, to push for negotiations is both irresponsible and dangerous; and after Scheer mentioned that, the apparent hope on the part of many in power, that Putin be humiliated, is the opposite of what is needed for negotiation. Roback replies, “But I think if you’re talking about the situation with Ukraine, I would not criticize America. I would criticize Putin. He’s the one that started. He’s the one that launched an attack on a peaceful country and started killing people. He’s the evil person here, not us. I mean, why is it our fault that he’s fighting a war in Ukraine? And don’t you think we should help the Ukrainians defend themselves?”

    Amazing. I admit that I am naive enough to be shocked when a committed scientist, who has demonstrated in research that nuclear war could end life on earth, has never bothered to research the complex background to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Instead, he ends up a cheerleader for one-sided support for war. Another victim of cheerleader media and blind support for STEM education.

  11. It is unfortunate that Robock has fallen for the hate Putin view of what is really a proxy US/NATO war against Russia and to some extent China. He needs to start reading ScheerPost instead of believing the mainstream corporate media and falling into the hate trap. The US keeps pulling this trick: first it was hate Miloskovich, then it was Hussein, now it is Putin. I am no big Putin fan, but it is an incredibly clever use of psychological warfare/propaganda. Trump’s worst legacy when all is said and done is probably Hate. On the other side we have what are so often called the bleeding heart liberals. So with the Ukraine-Russia War we have the liberals with a bleeding heart stance over the people of Ukraine and on the other side Trump’s legacy of Hate directed at Putin. It’s not really OK to hate, but it is OK to hate Putin. Not to discount the very real pain of the people of Ukraine, It is always in wars the people who suffer the most, and they are for the most part innocent. Not soldiers, not politicians, but just people trying to lead their lives.

  12. Wow. You asked the $1M question during this interview. You were looking at the reason. Dr. Robock is a member of the college educated, managerial/academic neoliberal class. And so is the peace movement in the USA. Since LBJ, there has never been a robust peace movement when a Democrat is in the White House. I was involved with a peace council in upstate NY since the 1990s. I watched them join in the demonstrations pre-Iraq war, but then remain silent as Obama drone bombed USA enemies around the world. Right now they remain silent for fear that they could help elect Trump and his supporters if they got loud. I am glad you asked the question. You practiced great restraint during the interview, and maybe you can have someone on in the future who can talk more honestly and openly to your question.

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