A new book argues that nuclear winter, one of the great environmental scares of the 1980s, was fabricated by Moscow
So, Russia does appear to interfere in western politics. The FBI has charged 13 Russians with trying to influence the last American presidential election, including the whimsical detail that one of them was to build a cage to hold an actor in prison clothes pretending to be Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, it emerges that the Czech secret service, under KGB direction, near the end of the Cold War had a codename (“COB”) for a Labour MP they had met and hoped to influence — presumably under the bizarre delusion that he might one day be in reach of power.
There is no evidence that Jeremy Corbyn was a spy, or of collusion by Trump campaign operatives with the Russians who are charged. Yet the alleged Russian operation in America was anti-Clinton and pro-Trump. It was also pro-Bernie Sanders and pro-Jill Stein, the Green candidate — who shares with Vladimir Putin a strong dislike of fracking.
The Keystone Cops aspects of these stories should not reassure. The interference by Russian agents in western politics during the Cold War was real and dangerous. A startling example from the history of science has recently been discussed in an important book about the origins of the environmental movement, Green Tyranny by Rupert Darwall.
In June 1982, the same month as demonstrations against the Nato build-up of cruise and Pershing missiles reached fever pitch in the West, a paper appeared in AMBIO, a journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, authored by the Dutchman Paul Crutzen and the American John Birks. Crutzen would later share a Nobel prize for work on the ozone layer. The 1982 paper, entitled The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon, argued that, should there be an exchange of nuclear weapons between Nato and the Soviet Union, forests and oil fields would ignite and the smoke of vast fires would cause bitter cold and mass famine: “The screening of sunlight by the fire-produced aerosol over extended periods during the growing season would eliminate much of the food production in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Carl Sagan, astronomer turned television star, then convened a conference on the “nuclear winter” hypothesis in October 1983, supported by leading environmental and anti-war pressure groups from Friends of the Earth to the Audubon Society, Planned Parenthood to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Curiously, three Soviet officials joined the conference’s board and a satellite link from the Kremlin was provided.
In December 1983, two papers appeared in the prestigious journal Science, one on the physics that became known as TTAPS after the surnames of its authors, S being for Sagan; the other on the biology, whose authors included the famous biologists Paul Ehrlich and Stephen Jay Gould as well as Sagan. The conclusion of the second paper was extreme: “Global environmental changes sufficient to cause the extinction of a major fraction of the plant and animal species on Earth are likely. In that event, the possibility of the extinction of Homo sapiens cannot be excluded.”
Who started the scare and why? One possibility is that it was fake news from the beginning. When the high-ranking Russian spy Sergei Tretyakov defected in 2000, he said that the KGB was especially proud of the fact “it created the myth of nuclear winter”. He based this on what colleagues told him and on research he did at the Red Banner Institute, the Russian spy school.
The Kremlin was certainly spooked by Nato’s threat to deploy medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe if the Warsaw Pact refused to limit its deployment of such missiles. In Darwall’s version, based on Tretyakov, Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, “ordered the Soviet Academy of Sciences to produce a doomsday report to incite more demonstrations in West Germany”. They applied some older work by a scientist named Kirill Kondratyev on the cooling effect of dust storms in the Karakum Desert to the impact of a nuclear exchange in Germany.
Tretyakov said: “I was told the Soviet scientists knew this theory was completely ridiculous. There were no legitimate facts to support it. But it was exactly what Andropov needed to cause terror in the West.” Andropov then supposedly ordered it to be fed to contacts in the western peace and green movement.
It certainly helped Soviet propaganda. From the Pope to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the non-aligned nations, calls for Nato’s nuclear strategy to be rethought because of the nuclear winter theory came thick and fast. A Russian newspaper used the nuclear winter to inveigh against “inhuman aspirations of the US imperialists, who are pushing the world towards nuclear catastrophe”. The award of the Nobel peace prize in 1985 to the prominent Russian doctor Evgeny Chazov specifically mentioned his support for the nuclear winter theory.