80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#125 – Joan Rohlfing on how to avoid catastrophic nuclear blunders

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

Since the Soviet Union split into different countries in 1991, the pervasive fear of catastrophe that people lived with for decades has gradually faded from memory, and nuclear warhead stockpiles have declined by 83%. Nuclear brinksmanship, proxy wars, and the game theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD) have come to feel like relics of another era.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed all that.

According to Joan Rohlfing — President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit focused on reducing threats from nuclear and biological weapons — the annual risk of a ‘global catastrophic nuclear event'’ never fell as low as people like to think, and for some time has been on its way back up.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

At the same time, civil society funding for research and advocacy around nuclear risks is being cut in half over a period of years — despite the fact that at $60 million a year, it was already just a thousandth as much as the US spends maintaining its nuclear deterrent.

If new funding sources are not identified to replace donors that are withdrawing, the existing pool of talent will have to leave for greener pastures, and most of the next generation will see a career in the field as unviable.

While global poverty is on the decline and life expectancy increasing, the chance of a catastrophic nuclear event is probably trending in the wrong direction.

Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees that turned out not to be worth the paper they were written on. States that have nuclear weapons (such as North Korea), states that are pursuing them (such as Iran), and states that have pursued nuclear weapons but since abandoned them (such as Libya, Syria, and South Africa) may take this as a valuable lesson in the importance of military power over promises.

China has been expanding its arsenal and testing hypersonic glide missiles that can evade missile defences. Japan now toys with the idea of nuclear weapons as a way to ensure its security against its much larger neighbour. India and Pakistan both acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1980s and their relationship continues to oscillate from hostile to civil and back.

At the same time, the risk that nuclear weapons could be interfered with due to weaknesses in computer security is far higher than during the Cold War, when systems were simpler and less networked.

In the interview, Joan discusses several steps that can be taken in the immediate term, such as renewed efforts to extend and expand arms control treaties, changes to nuclear use policy, and the retirement of what they see as vulnerable delivery systems, such as land-based silos.

In the bigger picture, NTI seeks to keep hope alive that a better system than deterrence through mutually assured destruction remains possible. The threat of retaliation does indeed make nuclear wars unlikely, but it necessarily means the system fails in an incredibly destructive way: with the death of hundreds of millions if not billions.

In the long run, even a tiny 1 in 500 risk of a nuclear war each year adds up to around an 18% chance of catastrophe over the century.

In this conversation we cover all that, as well as:

• How arms control treaties have evolved over the last few decades
• Whether lobbying by arms manufacturers is an important factor shaping nuclear strategy
• The Biden Nuclear Posture Review
• How easily humanity might recover from a nuclear exchange
• Implications for the use of nuclear energy

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Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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