Stuff You Should Know | Podcast Review | September 21, 2015 | By

Stuff You Should Know: “The Great Nuclear Winter Debate of 1983”

A nuclear winter is probably not the solution to global warming.

This week Josh and Chuck take us back to the heated scientific debates of the 1980s over the effects of widespread nuclear weapons use. This specific event wasn’t something that I had heard about. I was familiar heard with the debates over non-proliferation of nuclear weapons that occurred throughout the Cold War. However, the arguments and studies of scientists in the 80s about the consequences of all-out nuclear war were something new.

But, uh, holy shit are they terrifying.

For some perspective, the international scientific community was so concerned that even U.S. and Soviet scientists worked together to document the probable effects of a nuclear war. I don’t know if you’ve seen Rocky IV, but the USSR and United States were not exactly friends during the 80s. Thankfully many top scientists recognized the gravity of their situation and worked to educate the world about the very possible effects of widespread nuclear weapons use.

Accounts varied, but the general consensus in any of their projections was never pretty. Temperatures could easily drop 15 degrees Celsius (~ 59 degrees Fahrenheit, or effectively the difference between summer and winter). Sunlight could be impeded by constant dust and cloud cover. Cities could burn for days. Cats and dogs could be living together—mass hysteria. (Okay, that last line is Bill Murray from Ghostbusters, but everything else is true.)

The controversial part of the 1983 debate over the inevitable nuclear winter wasn’t really related to its scientific projections, but if they would be ever come to public attention.

There’s a couple of human and political problems that got in the way of science during the time of these studies. See, there was a nuclear defense system called “Star Wars” that the US government planned to create. It would prevent upwards of 90 percent of all nuclear missiles. Ironically, this proposed defense system would encourage nuclear proliferation, as the Soviets would need to launch more and more nuclear weapons.

As a deterrent to Soviet action, many Americans claimed we need to build our arsenal in response. It was an exercise in the most dangerous game theory experiment our world has ever seen. Some scientists, thinking more politically than scientifically, decried the broad range of studies that didn’t perfectly match each other. Science by its very nature means a variety of probabilistic calculations. These contrarians were simply nitpicking to support their side. The anti-nuclear scientists, led by the famous Carl Sagan, were not happy with this. I imagine there was some massive Revenge of the Nerds style rock-off that settled the debate once and for all, but we’ll have to leave that to our imaginations.

The whole situation was bad enough that someone decided we needed a Doomdsay Clock to indicate how close we were to annihilating ourselves. The clock peaked at 11:58, or 2 minutes to midnight. That’s frighteningly close.

Today, the clear and present-day parallel is of course man-made climate change. Unfortunately it’s an issue with even more players and variables. Any country can contribute to increasing greenhouse gasses, rather than just the two major world powers. Restrictions can be difficult to enforce and many politicians are dis-incentivized to act in the long term interest of the world.

This episode was a fascinating trip back to the past of a fearful time in American history. Hopefully it’s something we don’t need to revisit any time soon, but that seems increasingly unlikely. Oh and that cheesy Doomsday Clock? It’s still in use.

And don’t worry: it’s only at 3 minutes to midnight now.

How Publicists Work

TLDR: Publicists lie, cheat and steal to protect and support the image of their clients. So take everything they say with a grain of salt. Josh and Chuck provide a much more subtle and complex analysis of the job of a publicist, but all I took away is that this is one job that is not for Abe Lincoln.


About the Author

Nick Wade is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he writes about The Sporkful and Stuff  You Should Know. You can find him at

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