Robert Oppenheimer: Father of global warming?

Dr. A.B. Lowther Contributor
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As we mark the anniversaries of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), an opportunity to reexamine the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer — the driving scientific force behind the Manhattan Project — presents itself. While often referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer may also deserve the moniker “father of global warming.” Let me explain.

Oppenheimer’s brilliance and determination played a significant role in enabling the United States to complete the first two atomic bombs — Fat Man and Little Boy — in time to use them before November 1, 1945, when the invasion of Japan was scheduled to begin. President Truman believed that had the Manhattan Project been delayed or unsuccessful, 500,000 American troops and untold Japanese civilians would have perished in the invasion.

Twenty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an NBC interviewer asked Oppenheimer about the very first nuclear detonation — the Trinity test. With tears welling up in his eyes, Oppenheimer described his feelings immediately following the blast by quoting one of Hinduism’s holy scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” While Oppenheimer’s words are proving correct, it is for a very different reason.

Like so many on the political left during the Cold War, Robert Oppenheimer was convinced that mankind was doomed to perish in a nuclear holocaust. What he did not foresee was the fact that nuclear weapons would turn out to be the single greatest “weapon of peace” ever invented. In the 71 years since Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, great power war has disappeared.

As one study conducted by the U.S. Strategic Command notes, between 1600 and 1945 wars killed an average of 1-2% of the world’s population each year. Since 1945, that number has averaged 0.1-0.3% of the world’s population — a dramatic decline. In other words, had the rate of wartime fatalities not dropped, an estimated 6.5-13 million people would have died as a result of war in 2010.

Instead, information collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program suggests that there were an estimated 61,000-65,000 wartime fatalities in 2010. Whether nuclear weapons deserve all the credit for this precipitous decline in wartime fatalities is tough to say, but they certainly deserve some credit.

If I am right, and nuclear weapons have saved millions of lives, Oppenheimer’s “I am become the destroyer of worlds” quote is proving true. Let me offer some back-of-the-napkin math to illustrate.

According to the United Nations (see graph), the global population was an estimated 2.7 billion in 1950, 3 billion in 1960, 3.5 billion in 1970, 4.3 billion in 1980, 5.1 billion in 1990, 6.1 billion in 2000 and 6.8 billion in 2010.

Had the pre-1945 wartime fatality rate remained 1-2% of the world’s population, 315-630 million people would have died as a result of war between 1950 and 2010. The decline in wartime fatalities saved between 220 million and 440 million of those lives. Those people went on to live, have children and emit untold tons of greenhouse gases.

This leaves the “father of the atomic bomb” and his fellow scientists responsible for the contributions to global climate change of at least 220 million people. No “big oil” CEO, Arab sheikh or Republican is as responsible for increasing greenhouse gases as is the scientific inspiration for the atomic bomb — albeit indirectly.

Oppenheimer’s crimes against the environment are magnified by the fact that conflict casualties have declined the most in wealthy countries, which have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. This means there are more rich people emitting more CO2 and other pollutants than there would have been had the atomic bomb never been invented.

The sad truth is wartime fatalities have — for the last 60 years — remained highest in countries that emit the least greenhouse gases. While the global average for annual CO2 emissions is 6.8 tons per capita, the average American emits 23 tons of CO2 per year.

For those who care about global climate change, this information should spur action. Unless the environmental movement makes the world safe for conventional warfare by ensuring that the world’s nuclear powers denuclearize, untold millions of people will survive to emit greenhouse gases for years to come.

While I make this argument in jest, it highlights one important point — nuclear weapons save lives by deterring great power war. This is a point worth remembering as we consider further reductions in the nuclear arsenal.

Dr. A.B. Lowther holds a PhD in International Relations and has lived, taught and traveled around the world.