People don’t understand what nuclear war would mean

nuclear conflagration

With risk of nuclear war now at its highest in decades, populations once again need to be educated on long-term climate effects of atomic disturbances, according to a study published by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

The study reveals a terrible lack of awareness among US and UK populations about what a “nuclear winter” would entail.

In an opinion poll released by Paul Ingram, CSER Senior Research Associate, it was found that despite risks of a nuclear exchange being at their highest for 40 years, there is broad ignorance among UK and US populations about “nuclear winter” ~the potential for catastrophic long-term environmental consequences from any large exchange of nuclear warheads.

Detonations from a nuclear exchange would throw vast amounts of debris into the stratosphere, ultimately blocking out much of the sun for up to a decade, causing global drops in temperature, mass crop failure and widespread famine.

Combined with radiation fall-out, these add-on effects would cause billions more people to perish in the wake of a nuclear war – even if they are far outside of any blast zone.


The survey, conducted online on 25 January 2023, asked 3,000 participants – half in the UK, half in the US – to self-report on a sliding scale whether they felt they knew a lot about “nuclear winter”, and if they had heard about it from:

  • Contemporary media or culture, of which 3.2% in the UK and 7.5% in the US said they had.
  • Recent academic studies, of which 1.6% in the UK and 5.2% in the US claimed they had.
  • Beliefs held during the 1980s, of which 5.4% in the UK and 9% in the US said they still recalled.

The survey also presented all participants with fictional media reports from the near future (dated July 2023) relaying news of nuclear attacks by Russia on Ukraine, and vice versa, to gauge support in the UK and US for western retaliation.

In the event of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine, fewer than one in five people surveyed in both countries supported in-kind retaliation, with men more likely than women to back nuclear reprisal: 20.7% (US) and 24.4% (UK) of men compared to 14.1% (US) and 16.1% (UK) of women.

The survey used infographics summarizing nuclear winter effects laid out in a recent study led by Rutgers University (published by Nature in August 2022)

Half the survey sample in each country (750 in the UK and US) were shown the infographics before they read the fictional news of nuclear strikes, while the other half – a control group – were not.

Support for nuclear retaliation was lower by 16% in the US and 13% in the UK among participants shown the “nuclear winter” infographics than among the control group.

This effect was more significant for those supporting the parties of the US President and UK Government.

Support for nuclear retaliation was lower by 33% among UK Conservative Party voters and 36% among US Democrat voters when participants were briefly exposed to recent nuclear winter research.

In a nuclear war, bombs targeted on cities and industrial areas would start firestorms, injecting large amounts of soot into the upper atmosphere, which would spread globally and rapidly cool the planet.

Climate disruption from nuclear war would virtually wipe out global food production systems on land and in the oceans for a decade or longer.

Everything that did not die in a massive firestorm or from the horrible consequences of radiation poisoning is likely to starve to death.

A variety of ‘existential risks’ are threatening an unrecoverable collapse of human society, including natural and manmade pandemics, uncontrolled artificial intelligence, asteroid impact, and volcanic eruptions.

Human appreciation of the predictable outcome of nuclear war, a clearly preventable manmade danger, seems like a minimal effort in the struggle against self destruction but it is apparently not one the public has embraced.

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