Carl Sagan, nuclear winter, and the “climate wars”

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When Carl Sagan Warned the World About Nuclear Winter

Before the official report came out, the popular scientist took to the presses to paint a dire picture of what nuclear war might look like

For Smithsonian Magazine:

If you were one of the more than 10 million Americans receiving Parade magazine on October 30, 1983, you would have been confronted with a harrowing scenario. The Sunday news supplement’s front cover featured an image of the world half-covered in gray shadows, dotted with white snow. Alongside this scene of devastation were the words: “Would nuclear war be the end of the world?”

This article marked the public’s introduction to a concept that would drastically change the debate over nuclear war: “nuclear winter.” The story detailed the previously unexpected consequences of nuclear war: prolonged dust and smoke, a precipitous drop in Earth’s temperatures and widespread failure of crops, leading to deadly famine. “In a nuclear ‘exchange,’ more than a billion people would instantly be killed,” read the cover. “But the long-term consequences could be much worse…”

According to the article, it wouldn’t take both major nuclear powers firing all their weapons to create a nuclear winter. Even a smaller-scale war could destroy humanity as we know it. “We have placed our civilization and our species in jeopardy,” the author concluded. “Fortunately, it is not yet too late. We can safeguard the planetary civilization and the human family if we so choose. There is no more important or more urgent issue.”

The article was frightening enough. But it was the author who brought authority and seriousness to the doomsday scenario: Carl Sagan.

Read the rest at Smithsonian.com…

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Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. – Carl Sagan, born November 9, 1934

Carl Sagan in 1980. [Credit: NASA/JPL]

Like many science writers, I count Carl Sagan as one of my inspirations and influences. However, I think there’s a tendency to mourn his absence (he died relatively young) in the wrong way: by negatively contrasting current science communicators with him, as though there needs to be One True Sagan, with everyone else failing to meet his standard. That’s a fallacy of thought and a failure of imagination.

I think there is a tendency to idolize Sagan, which is (as usual with idolization) unfair both to him and to others who would try to communicate science. In this era of media fragmentation, it may not even be possible for a single figure to be as popular or recognizable, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Instead of a single Sagan, why not many? [Read more…]

Happy birthday, Carl Sagan!