In her 2017 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Beatrice Fihn acknowledged the insane situation we find ourselves in due to the widespread militaristic harnessing of the atom:
The risk for nuclear weapons use is even greater today than at the end of the Cold War. But unlike the Cold War, today we face many more nuclear armed states, terrorists, and cyber warfare. All of this makes us less safe … A moment of panic or carelessness, a misconstrued comment or bruised ego, could easily lead us unavoidably to the destruction of entire cities. A calculated military escalation could lead to the indiscriminate mass murder of civilians.
As Fihn points out, it has not been “prudent leadership” that has thus far helped us avoid disaster, but “good fortune.” There are roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons currently on Earth and there have been an alarming number of close calls. We probably owe our continued existence to the fact that cool-headed heroes like Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov happened to be in the right place at the right time. As Fihn also points out, the biggest threat to humanity from the use of these weapons lies not in the immediate blast or subsequent nuclear fallout, but in the effects on the climate:
If only a small fraction of today’s nuclear weapons were used, soot and smoke from the firestorms would loft high into the atmosphere—cooling, darkening and drying the Earth’s surface for more than a decade. It would obliterate food crops, putting billions at risk of starvation.
Carl Sagan, Alan Robock and Brian Toon were among the first to realise the effects of a nuclear winter. As Toby Ord explains:
[in a] nuclear winter … nuclear firestorms loft smoke from burning cities into the upper atmosphere. High above the clouds, the smoke cannot be rained out and would persist for years, blackening the sky, chilling the Earth and causing massive crop failure … Millions of direct deaths from explosions could be followed by billions of deaths from starvation, and—potentially—by the end of humanity itself.
Robock and Toon have described how even a localised nuclear conflict—between India and Pakistan, say—could have dire consequences for the whole world. Not only would more than 100 million people be expected to die from the initial blasts, but “the climatic effects of the smoke produced by an India–Pakistan nuclear war would not be confined to the subcontinent, or even to Asia. Those effects would be enormous and global in scope.” A full-scale war between the US and Russia would bring about a new Ice Age, resulting in “surface temperatures below freezing even in summer.” India and Pakistan together possess around 300 nuclear warheads—only one fiftieth of the estimated global total. The old Cold War nations have many thousands of weapons each. However, even an India–Pakistan conflict, Robock and Toon explain, “would cause large reductions in agriculture and food shortages. Depending on whether people hoard food or share, there could be famine for millions or billions of people.”
All this is even more worrying when we consider that the barriers to entry for nuclear weapon technology are shrinking. As nuclear scientist Khaled Talaat has explained:
Simply put, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is slow, expensive, and requires a large industrial complex, with access to the necessary materials and trained expertise. The success of the 20th century’s nonproliferation regime was therefore largely due to inherent physics, in addition to policy. These challenges effectively formed a barrier to potential proliferator states that was and remains difficult to overcome without detection from other states. But technological advances in the 21st century have eased the acquisition of special nuclear materials, and will likely make the pursuit of nuclear weapons cheaper and faster. The role of advanced detection technology and effective international policy have therefore become more critical.
Robock, Toon and their colleagues argue that we may be heading towards a new US–Russian Cold War, since the two countries have been “choosing to upgrade their arsenals” with “new generations of nuclear weaponry more effective than the old variety.” Worse still, if the recent revelations about the Chinese hypersonic missile tech are correct, that—together with China’s recent tenfold increase in nuclear silos and armaments and its aim of obtaining 1000 nukes by 2030—suggests that Homo sapiens is doing a great job of increasing the chances of a self-inflicted catastrophe. The CCP’s sabre-rattling seems especially worrying given the growing tensions between China and the west over China’s ongoing human rights abuses, including their persecution of the Uyghurs, Falun Gong and Tibetans; their continued efforts to impede investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and the silencing of whistleblowers like Dr Li Wenliang; the repression of Hong Kong’s democracy; recent violent clashes with the Indian army; and the ramping up of threats to Taiwan.
That we are paying so much attention to emissions and global warming, while ignoring the fact that a nuclear conflict could happen tomorrow—due to some ideologue with access to the big red button or something as banal as human or technical error—seems utterly irrational. So, why are so many smart people who care about the long term future of humanity focused on gradual global warming, while ignoring the danger of sudden global cooling due to a nuclear winter? This may be partly because politicians find climate change a useful talking point. But it may also because we feel so powerless.
There seems to be very little we can do as individuals here. No nation wants to give up its nuclear deterrent. The old Cold War narrative was based on the idea of mutually assured destruction: no nation would fire their weapons for fear that they would be destroyed by a nuclear counterattack. Recent climate modelling has shown, however, that—regardless of the source of the attack—every nation would be affected. This is known as self-assured destruction. But, thankfully, we are not totally helpless here.
We can encourage governmental and NGO driven treaties on disarmament and first strike policies and call for the removal of hair trigger alert mechanisms. We can work on figuring out how to keep as many people alive as possible in the event of disaster. For example, a study by Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce has revealed that there is a maximum number of nuclear weapons a country can fire before it leads to that country’s own destruction:
We looked at how many nuclear weapons a state should have if they would continue to be rational. And by rational I mean even if everything were to go your way, if you shot all of your nuclear weapons, they all hit their targets, the people you were aiming at weren’t firing back at you, at what point would just the effects of firing that many weapons hurt your own society, possibly kill many of your own people, or destroy your own nation?
This number is around 100—a “remarkably low number,” as Pearce puts it, given that the nine officially nuclear armed states probably have around 15,000 weapons between them. Pearce comments: “many of the nuclear power states currently have more weapons than . And so it’s clear at least from our current political system that we’re not behaving rationally and that there’s a real need to have a backup plan for humanity in case something does go wrong.” Denkenberger comments: “no one appears to have a plan for what would happen. Of course you hear about the continuity of government plans, and bunkers, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for actually keeping most people alive.”
When we look at the utter shambles that has resulted from most governments’ attempts, in even the wealthiest nations, to handle the current pandemic, is this really any surprise? Naïve optimism characterises our global elites’ attitude toward catastrophic risk—unless, of course, it becomes politically or financially beneficial for them to fly their private jets to a back-patting circus of virtue signalling and platitudinal rhetoric.
So what can be done? We can, as Yuval Noah Harari suggests, choose not to vote for politicians unless they can respond intelligently to questions about nuclear conflict and what they plan to do about it. We can also, if we have the means, help to directly fund organizations that focus on this problem such as the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED).
Unfortunately, it would seem that the funding support for preventing existential catastrophe is as meagre as the number of publications in the field (according to Denkenberger and Pearce more papers have been published on dung beetles). As Toby Ord writes: “While it is difficult to precisely measure global spending on existential risk, we can state with confidence that humanity spends more on ice cream every year than on ensuring that the technologies we develop do not destroy us.”
Ord estimates that there is a 1/1000 chance of an existential catastrophe due to a nuclear holocaust occurring this century—the same odds he gives for a catastrophe due to global warming. We have been allocating enormous amounts of attention and resources to the problem of global warming. We must allocate at least equal resources to the risk of nuclear catastrophe.