Don’t relax about nuclear war

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Each generation has its own form of recency bias, as it is called in behavioral economics. Just after Sept. 11, for example, there was great concern about follow-up attacks. (Thankfully, nothing comparable followed.) Now we worry a lot — maybe too much — about insolvent banks, insufficiently high inflation, and the Chinese shock to U.S. manufacturing.

So what about nuclear war? Looking forward, the reality is that the risks of such a war are quite small in any particular year. But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a nuclear exchange of some kind becomes pretty likely.

I have found that people with a background in financial market trading are best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war. An analogy might be helpful: Say you write a deeply out-of-the-money put, without an offsetting hedge. This is in fact a very risky action, though almost all of the time you will get away with it. When you don’t, however — when market prices move against you — you can lose all of your wealth quite suddenly.

In other words: Sooner or later the unexpected will come to pass.

And:

Meanwhile, a generation of hypersonic delivery systems, being developed by China, Russia and the U.S., will shorten the response time available to political and military leaders to minutes. That raises the risk of a false signal turning into a decision to retaliate, or it may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible. Remember, it’s not enough for the principle of mutual assured destruction to be generally true; it has to be always true.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of Steven Pinker as well.

Comments

'I have found that people with a background in financial market trading are best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war. '

In my experience, the people best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war are those who were in command of nuclear warheads (or in command of multiple units/installations possessing nuclear weapons). Mainly because those people do not live in a world of fantasy, but are actually in charge of using nuclear weapons.

And this seems to ignore where nuclear war is most likely - 'In the 1950s and ’60s, fears of nuclear war were palpable. In 1951, the president of Harvard wrote a letter to his 21st-century successor. “There are many who anticipate World War III within the decade,” James B. Conant wrote, “and not a few who consider the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible.”' India and Pakistan having a nuclear conflict is not WWIII, and though considerably less likely, a nuclear exchange between India and China will not be WWIII either.

As North Korea? Seems that the regime will only use nuclear weapons when they have decided to commit suicide anyways, and it is exceedingly hard to imagine that triggering WWIII.

Ah, but back then, one apprehended the destruction of Harvard with horror rather than with barely concealed glee.

Given their vast over-concentration in large cities, don't Democrats have the most to lose from any nuclear exchange, however limited? We should think on this matter more...

Strategically you don't bomb population centers. You pick something you can make into an example like a Hiroshima or Nagasaki, not a Tokyo. Alaska is the closest to North Korea and Russia and fits the bill perfectly, not to mention has oil reserves.

'Strategically you don't bomb population centers.'

Of course not, that would be a war crime. Instead, you target things of strategic importance, and write the collateral damage off. For example, Norfolk or San Diego would simply be collateral damage. Fairfax would not be targeted - but between Dulles and the Pentagon, well, it would be a bad day to be out and about in NoVa.

The bombing of Tokyo was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.

For now - one can be confident that if India and Pakistan have a nuclear exchange, Toyko will be a footnote. Along the lines of noting that the P51 Mustang was the fastest prop plane - interesting in its way, but not really relevant in an age of hypersonic aircraft.

India will bomb Pakistan. The world will largely shrug though some politicians will pose and prance, and the man in the pub will complain that the Indians didn't finish the job off.

too few make their fortunes in Pakistan for it to matter

My developer is trying to persuade me to move to .net from PHP.
I have always disliked the idea because of the costs. But he's tryiong none the less.
I've been using Movable-type on several websites for about a year and am
anxious about switching to another platform. I have heard good things
about blogengine.net. Is there a way I can transfer all
my wordpress posts into it? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

What Me Worry? Climate Change will kill the Planet in (now) less than 12 years.

Ex Malo Bonum

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

Good one!

I don't know about "demonstration" nuking. How many times need to pop a nuke before the other side realizes we're serious? The US nucular war "doctrine" is/was mutually assured destruction.

>What Me Worry? Climate Change will kill the Planet in (now) less than 12 years.

The truly woke might even believe that a nuclear winter could save people on net.

The joke was on Conant. It was diversity that destroyed (some of) their cities. No nukes needed.

" But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a nuclear exchange of some kind becomes pretty likely."

A completely meaningless statement.

Let the clock and enough years pass, and a meteor strike becomes pretty likely. Don't relax about meteors.

As I pointed out on Econlog, we don't appear to need to be worried for 100s of years. (My comments on Econlog covered Near-Earth Objects...comets may be a different matter.)

https://www.econlib.org/the-public-good-of-protection-from-asteroids/#comment-219571

And in 100s of years, we should be easily able to detect and knock away anything civilization-threatening. (Unless a nuclear war bombs earth back to the Stone Age.)

Everything's eventual. But Todd's right; timescale matters.

A mean rate of 1 nuke per 1,000 years is not the same as 1 nuke per year.

>A completely meaningless statement.

Yes. And yet it forms the basis of his entire article.

All economists are taught to crank out as many different articles as possible saying "Incredibly unlikely thing X can still happen," monkeys-with-typewriters-style, so that periodically one can be crowned The One Brilliant Guy Who Saw This Coming.

It's sort of like buying a Powerball ticket for them.

"it may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible"

I can imagine a first strike against a low-ranked nuclear power being successful (successful in the sense that it destroys their nuclear capability).

But I would expect not just the US but Russia as well (and eventually China) to have enough surviving warheads to make the first-striker strongly regret their aggression. The US in particular has ballistic missile submarines that probably can't be taken out by anything or anybody due to being undetected.

'and eventually China'

The Chinese have always explicitly built just enough nuclear weapons to deter a first strike - based on the reasonable assumption that no nation is willing to trade its top 10 or 20 or 50 cities for 'victory.'

And first strike has two meanings, often not really well distinguished. The first is a successful surprise attack that succeeds without a counter strike (a fantasy essentially, though one that is helped if a nation has a missile defense system - which is why Reagan's Star Wars proposal was seen as exceedingly problematic in terms of outlawing the Soviet Untion and starting bombing).

The second meaning, and one at least somewhat accurately depicted in Dr. Strangelove oddly enough, is a first strike that cripples an opponent, while accepting the consequences - General "Buck" Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

President Merkin Muffley: You're talking about mass murder, General, not war!

General "Buck" Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuP6KbIsNK4

The harsh thing is, Turgidson had a rational point in that context (a partial first-strike in progress, when the opponent was believed to have only a limited second-strike capability).

Disagree hard. Don't worry about nuclear war because you can't do anything about it and if it happens you die. Worry about health care, job loss, inflation, crony capitalism, etc because those have an infinitely greater chance of happening to you than Kim or Trump pushing the big red button. If anything fear of mushroom clouds might make you vote for terrible RINO or DINO politicians.

It is amusing to think that one day, Prof. Cowen could write a book titled 'Big Booms: How We Need to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'

He ended his text with that line.

And considering that he wrote a love letter to shark like entities, maybe he will come round and tell us how the bomb actually is a good thing anyways, even if it does not love us.

Wrong on both counts. Governments can certainly act with the goal of reducing the likelihood of nuclear war, and there are plenty of nuclear scenarios that don't involve humanity being completely obliterated.

Tyler's main point is that people are bad at weighing the cost of a rare catastrophic event against something smaller and mundane, and I think your comment provides evidence in support.

There are many, many rare catastrophic events though. I don't think one is wrong to ignore them and choose to instead focus on the mundane. One has to live one's life after all.

yeah, the government of north korea is doing a real good job of stopping nuclear war ....and you want to spend your time worried about nuclear war i don't care i got bills to pay my bills don't care about your war either.

Dan, the probability that you die in a car crash, or that you live your life suboptimally because you don't make mundane, identifiable choices better, is higher than the probability that you die from a nuclear war. You are perhaps assuming that we care about the far future of human civilization rather than our own wellbeing. Most people don't, and that is perfectly rational.

"run the clock long enough and it will become likely..."

No one cares. That's what time discounting is for. You can nuke the world to oblivion in 2100, that is perfectly fine by me.

Projecting again.

Yes, people grab status by fake-caring loudly while they expect other people to pay the implied costs. People aren't actually voluntarily paying huge costs themselves. If it's free and you can gain status by mouthing words, people will mouth words.

My point is that time discounting exists for a reason and the average rational person has no good reason to pay huge costs for future generations.

Are you trying to sneak in a neocon angle here? Is the US's role in the future going to be the world's nuclear cops?

I’m a bit more sanguine about this than Tyler.

I think the likelihood of a global nuclear war is vanishingly small - even the North Korean regime isn’t interested in suicide.

I think the probability of a small nuclear exchange between smaller nations is non-negligible - say, India and Pakistan. “Small” is a relative term - it would be really bad, millions killed by primary effects, millions more by secondary effects. These kind of potential conflicts are where the superpowers can maybe make a positive difference.

Finally, I think the likelihood of nuclear terrorism is slightly more than that of global nuclear war, but still very small. I don’t see terrorists coming up with a nuclear weapon de novo as worth worrying about - enriching uranium is a large industrial process, hard to hide. The more likely scenario by far is that terrorists get a working 20 kt bomb, or at least the core and initiator, from someone else - say Pakistan for the sake of this example scenario. So the terrorists plant the device in Las Vegas (Steven King smiles), and kill a hundred thousand people. Now what? The US traces down what state actor did it (it would likely be obvious), and tells them to give up the terrorists and dismantle their nuke program under our supervision in 24 hours or wake up the following morning as radioactive glass. Even the mullahs in Iran know this would be the end result of their helping terrorists acquire nukes to attack the US or Israel. I just don’t see it as a significant threat.

Agreed on magnitude of risk assessment. The risk payoffs here are in the 1-20 million deaths, not billions.

For comparison, recall 0.25 million died in the Indian ocean tsunami.

What about non-state actors? They may be undeterred by suicide and usually have no territory to be retaliated upon.

If their ideology or religion is compelling, they can recruit or plant sympathizers among the personnel guarding nation-state nuclear arsenals. Can countries safeguard against inside-job leakage of sensitive materials? The US itself has a particularly poor track record lately.

I think the US or Israel would certainly hold the country or countries which aided the non-state actors (aka terrorists) responsible, as I said in my original comment. It wouldn't matter if it were a cabal operating without official sanction.

In the run-up to the Iraq war I kept asking why would Hussein ever think it would be to his advantage to five some terrorist a weapon of mass destruction.

I never got an answer.

I think the pro-Trump crowd doesn't care about nuclear war but if you tell them that when a big nuke goes off, it will create massive immigration of brown people, then they might start to care.

Who would waste their nuclear weapons on Central/South America (especially on a sh*thole like Brazil) that would cause massive immigration?

Does this mean you think the anti-Trump crowd would therefore love a nuclear war (because it creates a "massive immigration of brown people"), or are you just being edgy and cool and showing everyone how cool you are?

You can step back and generalize. Religious fundamentalists (including some domestically and in government) are sanguine about nuclear war, because they've got their tickets to heaven.

As I look out at the ruin of world and domestic politics today, I really lay it all at the feet of the fundamentalists. Be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or (rarely) Buddhist, they want it their way, to the detriment of everyone else.

If a nuke goes off, it will be one of these self-assured assholes.

Religious fundamentalists in the US government are sanguine about nuclear war because they have a ticket to heaven.

That’s the stupidest thing you’ve said so far in 2019.

Although it’s only May.

I could drop dozens of links connecting fundamentalistss, populism, and Armageddon.

Kevin Philips nailed all this 20 years ago.

Just three:

https://thehill.com/policy/international/middle-east-north-africa/443769-us-ambassador-to-israel-israel-is-on-the-side

https://wava.com/movies/blogs/religion-today-blog/end-time-prepper-jim-bakker-proclaims-god-sent-donald-trump-to-prepare-the-church-for-the-rapture

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/world/pompeo-its-possible-trump-was-raised-by-god-to-help-save-the-jewish-people/2019/03/22/65620c85-d8d8-404c-bd15-9e99120b34f3_video.html

Are you functionally illiterate? This was your quote:

“Religious fundamentalists (including some domestically and in government) are sanguine about nuclear war, because they've got their tickets to heaven.”

Link 1: Jewish ambassador to Israel saying Israel is on the side of God. Unsurprising, since that’s the basis of their entire religion, and has Nothing to do with nuclear war or wanting to exterminate the population of earth to bring on the “end times”

Link 2: Whacko televangelist says things on TV. He has nothing to do with the government whatsoever. Also nothing to do with wanting to start a nuclear war. ‘Religious nut says things on TV’ does not indicate a presence in the US government apparatus “sanguine about” a nuclear holocaust.

Link 3: Pompeo quote in the WaPo without any context. I assume he is making some idiotic claim about Trump’s support for Israel. Nothing to do with nuclear weapons or desire/apathy towards starting a nuclear war.

Reading comprehension. It’s a skill you need to practice.

You tend to get abusive when I raise things you don't want to acknowledge. It's a pattern.

Both [Pence and Pompeo] profess to be pro-Israel for example. Each enthusiastically backed the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year. Each also subscribes to the Christian Zionist belief that the rapture will only come once the Jews have all regrouped in the Holy Land. At which point, they, along with the rest of the unrighteous, will be smitten by a vengeful God.

https://www.ft.com/content/53087e90-174d-11e9-9e64-d150b3105d21

“Religious fundamentalists (including some domestically and in government) are sanguine about nuclear war, because they've got their tickets to heaven.”

That was your claim. You have submitted four links, not one of which has supported your claim in the slightest.

Find evidence that Pompeo and Pence are “sanguine about nuclear war” due to their religious beliefs. You’re 0/4 so far.

But sure, send more links about Evangelical support for Israel. It’s providing an abundance of evidence that you lack skills in reading comprehension and critical thinking when you jump from there to “inside the US government is a group of religious extremists that are totes cool with nuclear holocaust.”

You're just trying to stink up the thread now.

But here's where you really missed out. That was not a line even mainly about the US. It was about the human condition.

Look at Iran. Religious fundamentalists on the verge of the bomb. That should worry us for self-evident reasons. The thing is, they aren't all that unique. To paraphrase a reality TV host turned politician, we really aren't so different.

Humanity. Smart enough to build nukes, not smart enough to abandon fundamentalism beforehand.

Smart enough to lay waste to the planet, but still convinced that our one true religion is better than their one true religion, because we were lucky enough to have fathers who taught us the one true religion, while they were so unlucky that they only got fathers who thought they had the one true religion.

You’re switching to pointless meta arguments.

The claim was :

“Religious fundamentalists (including some domestically and in government) are sanguine about nuclear war, because they've got their tickets to heaven.”

You give four irrelevant links, and then switch to a meta argument.

Give some evidence that religious United States government officials are apathetic or sanguine about a nuclear holocaust because they desire the end of the world.

But you can’t, of course. Because you’re an idiot.

Anonymous aka Mouse is a troll and posting irrelevant links and then obfuscating is his MO. He's not worth responding to so please don't feed him.

He said religious fundamentalists in general, not just in the US government, which you impolitely added. To that point, he is correct. When you have the mentality that martyrdom is a form of redemption, the window of possible brutalities opens far and wide.

Eric Weinstein has been talking about this over the last year or two, and advocates resuming above ground nuclear testing so that we can have more than old grainy footage to ponder. Also, why don't we and the Russians agree to eliminate siloed missiles that can be targeted in a first strike? This would remove the dangerous 'use them or lose them, you have 15 minutes to decide' scenario.

'This would remove the dangerous 'use them or lose them, you have 15 minutes to decide' scenario.'

The advent of missile submarines essentially eliminated that scenario almost 50 years ago, at least when one is living in a MAD world.

Yes, but if you don't use them in 15 minutes you might only be able to kill your enemy once instead of twice.

Ballistic missile subs (at least the US ones) have historically been invulnerable to detection and thus first strike destruction. That may not be true in future. And there are only a few at sea at any given time. Total reliance on deterrence by those few ships would provide a huge incentive to find a way to overcome them.

Well yes, that is why we have something called a nuclear triad. Hopefully, President Trump is a bit better informed about that than candidate Trump was.

Not to mention, subs having their own issues. There is the old joke about the most powerful people world including the captain of every ballistic missile sub.

did you trick out your bunker compound with freeze-dried ethiopian food and a giant library of self-recommending books ? of course you did, you old dog.

But did he remember to make sure there were extra reading glasses available?

Heh.

Although, practically speaking, extra glasses would probably be pretty easy to find if you were the sole survivor of a nuclear war.

I'm not sure repeated game chance of it happening in any one year type thinking is right here. Perhaps there's correlation between years though, perhaps the whole thing is path dependent and the right path has no nuclear war and the wrong one does.

Tyler's simply wrong. His statement is equivalent to saying "the odds of Falls Church, Virginia renaming itself Tylertown are quite small in any particular year. But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a Tyler-related naming of some kind becomes pretty likely."

Any bets on the next nation to become a nuclear power? I say either Israel or Iran. Israel probably already has them but likes to hide their hand.

Israel is widely believed to have 80-400 nuclear weapons, deliverable by aircraft, short range ballistic missile, and recently sub launched cruise missile.

I’d add Saudi to the “impending” list, via Pakistan.

Japan is certainly capable, and could be as close as “put the pieces together”.

'Japan is certainly capable, and could be as close as “put the pieces together”.' Years ago a friend who worked there told me that Switzerland was in that position.

If India bombs Pakistan, will Pakistan retaliate and bomb India and all of its allies? Wait.......who are India's allies?

An India-Pakistan or Israel-Egypt-Jordan nuclear exchange is simply not comparable to a US/China/Russia conflict that may involve all allies and satellite countries.

If the US went to war tomorrow with Russia, there may be a larger possibility that the EU or China stay neutral compared to the 1960s. Thanks president Trump for weakening NATO and fighting with China.

Thus, the nuclear risk is there, what has been reduced is the possibility of a world scale conflict.

In case some aren't aware, in the 60s Russia was concerned about being attacked by China in the event of the cold war getting hot.

Brazil, followed by Argentina.

Bolsonaro asked Trump if he could build nukes and Trump said the word "oranges" was code that meant he could build one nuke.

Brazil has the capacity to build a nuke in perhaps 3 years.

Argentina has the ability to make nukes but not a lot of motivation at the moment.

There's no doubt Israel has nukes, but Iran has no real need for them. Their aging population limits their government's ability to project force for any extended time while maintaining domestic stability and the US is increasingly seen as incompetent and increasingly isolated rather than a threat.

Iran has an aging population, not an aged one. Median age is still 30. Half their population is basically military age. Their fertility collapsed only recently, as a result of intentional government action. They can project force for the next 30-40 years.

If I'm a concerned citizen, what exactly can I do? Politicians like Trump or Kim aren't exactly going to listen to me. Since I can't do much of anything here I might as well forget about it.

I suggest talking to Thomas Friedman about next time he gets in your cab.

The fundamental problem here, Mr. Cowen, is you're conflating the massively different threats of a World War III being fought with nuclear weapons, and "a nuclear exchange of some kind".

Outside of the places actually hit, a nuclear exchange on the order of dozens of warheads will have no more global effect than atmospheric nuclear testing had. A lot of Pakistanis and Indians would die in a local nuclear exchange, and the rest of us would only have to really worry about a bit more strontium-90 in milk.

The threat of more-or-less every major city in the developed world being devastated in one week is genuinely less today than it was in 1974. First, because there aren't two united rival superpower blocs standing toe-to-toe with armored divisions and fighter squadrons in a a few hours' range of each other. Second, because there are a lot more cities with "second world" levels of development.

And as far as first-strike, the calculations change in genuinely multilateral cases from the traditional bilateral. If, say, China somehow expends its nuclear arsenal to successfully cripple that of the NATO states (and please tell me how it's taking out SSBNs in the Atlantic)? China has likely expended enough of its arsenal that Russia could successfully engage in a first strike on China and it's revealed to the Russians that it's willing to engage in nuclear aggression. The logical move is for Russia to immediately slam China, in pre-emptive self defense before China can rebuild its nuclear arsenal.

"A nuclear exchange of some kind" is, absolutely, far more likely now than in 1974. A global thermonuclear war is far less likely, for mostly the same reasons.

You're just getting around to this? I think it rather old news.

The problem has been the lack of real desire by both the current major powers and the world community in general to really buy into the idea of nonproliferation. We get a bunch of empty words for the most part, sanctions that are frequently circumvented by some of the very powers who need to support them and, then a growing club of nuclear states.

The same reason these weapons are allowed to proliferate is the same reason not only nuclear war but global nuclear war has been increasing for decades now.

It seems to me that the only way you stop proliferation is with a strong world government, something no one, particularly not libertarians, support.

So what, Tyler asks us to worry more, but not get too solutionist?

If an EU can't hold together, we probably won't see a WU anytime soon. And that's a reason to allocate low energy. Lack of path.

GW may actually be less terrible than NW, but it enjoys lots of paths to argue about.

Also, to borrow from a now controversial public intellectual, clean up your room.

By that I mean your own government.

The risk is nuclear proliferation: Saudi, Iran, Turkey and regional conflict where one party is certain to lose a conventional war, or where one party will start a conventional conflict because the other party doesn't have a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear proliferation is the issue.

I’d actually be more concerned about bio-weapons.

'Engineer' is likely the most knowledgeable contributor here. Having worked in US military engineering thru much of the '60s and '70s, it's inconceivable to me that we do not have very sophisticated bio weapons that we would choose to use in serious warfare over nuclear. Why destroy masses of infrastructure when we could release a containable virus that would just kill off 25-45 year-old males and could be delivered surreptitiously by an already on-site agent? I suspect the nuclear delivery and defense work going on now is just to keep a well-paid military hierarchy intact and to maintain a plentiful source of funds for the defense industry.

Bio-weapons are worse than nukes in one respect. Nukes don't turn around and bite those who set them off, and they don't mutate away from existing counter-measures (vaccines).

Your bio-weapon that kills a specific subset of your opponent's population is both a near-fantasy and a threat to yourself days or weeks after you use it.

I suspect bio-weapons exist, but they are too dangerous to use, valuable only as a deterrent.

By the way, read Thomas Schelling, "The Strategy of Conflict" along with your Herman Kahn.

Are you active in the biosciences and current with the applicable bioscience journals? I ask just to better calibrate your feedback. (With today's accelerating advances in all the sciences, I'm keenly aware of the gap in understanding between those actively involved in a technology and those viewing it from the outside.)

It's true, I suspect: World War III could disrupt coffee and chocolate imports.

>Each generation has its own form of recency bias...So what about nuclear war?

Related hypothesis: Trump is old enough to remember the Cold War. Obama isn't. This fact explains the Obama and Trump administrations' conflicting strategies re the Iran nuke program.

Obama was born in 1961. 28 in 1989.

Exactly. He's a bit too young for hide-under-your-desk drills.

Just please don't send us back to the painfully earnest era of "The Fate of the Earth," "The Day After" and people standing around in the dark with candles.

"This is Lawrence, Kansas ... Is there anyone out there ... anyone at all..."

Is there is an effective hedge for a deep out of the money put? only if one assumes continuous trading, a normal distribution, etc... And you think financial traders are equipped to better understand risk? Talk about recency bias!

"Each generation has its own form of recency bias, as it is called in behavioral economics."

"Behavioral economists" seem to have their own bias. They seem to forget there is a field of science called "cognitive psychology".

You might want to read the old thriller by Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears. An alliance of German Communist terrorists and Islamist terrorists create a small nuke and set it off at the Superbowl. It was all too plausible.

State actors can be deterred. Terrorists cannot be deterred. An extra danger is when a state actor supports a terror organization. Iran may be in this position.

As for state actors, the danger is miscalculation and misunderstanding as opposed to cold deliberation to start a nuclear war. I am thinking here of "The Guns of August." Also the close call with the war games "Able Archer."

During the Cold War the USSR, China and, yes, the US supported various terrorists (AKA "freedom fighters" when supported by the US). None of these countries handed nukes out the back door. Countries with nukes hold onto them like a miser with his gold. A loose nuke is a danger to everyone, including the nation that let it loose.

Note in that book the mass murders got their hands on a nuke due to a government managing to loose one. They tried to soup it up but failed because they weren't too bright. (They valued information security over practicality.) Even in novels, making an atomic bomb from scratch can be unrealistic.

The paradox of nuclear deterrence (aka MAD) has always been what to do if you are actually hit by a first strike. For the purpose of deterrence is to prevent that first strike, and therefore if it happens deterrence has already failed.

In any case, deterrence only works if the source of that first strike can be identified. Nuclear weapons are just not all that large, not in a world in which huge numbers of shipping containers are constantly in motion, and few of these are inspected. if you could smuggle some nukes into the territory of a potential enemy and detonate them, who would this enemy retaliate against?

In any case, small nations no longer believe in the so-called "nuclear umbrella" offered by others, as it's far from obvious that the USA, China, Russia etc. would be willing to retaliate with nuclear weapons to protect an ally. Thus, the logic of proliferation seems inevitable. Yet command and control structures in these nations are not always stable, and their nuclear weapons may not have the technical protections against unauthorized use that have been developed by the older nuclear powers.

In any case, what remains unknowable is whether nuclear war can be contained after any first use.

No worries, I'm sure AI can handle the compressed time splendidly.

I mean, you know, after a learning curve.

Paging Dr. Strangelove...

In a 100-150 years there won't be any countries -- and everyone will be speaking English. End of problem.

While we are sweating it out: On Thermonuclear War by Herman Kahn
https://www.amazon.com/Thermonuclear-War-Herman-Kahn/dp/141280664X

>Sooner or later the unexpected will come to pass.

Demonstrably false.

Nobody has ever expected Hillary Clinton to become President. And yet she never has. And never will!

Someone with the wit and insight to say something negative about Hillary Clinton.

nah. -1. He did not mention pants suits.

Perhaps it's just that I'm around the WWI chapter of The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan but some things now have a distinctively pre-WWI feel to them. Multiple Great Powers whose roles are changing. A kind of love-hate thing going on between them in regards to trade. No clear ideological differences or alignment.

I wouldn't be surprised if the odds of nuclear war over the next 50 years are 30%, roughly the odds of Trump's election per 538.

A conflict between India and Pakistan which resulted in 100 nuclear detonations over major industrial/population centers could kill as many as a billion people. A sudden cold snap + reduced sunlight + reduced rainfall would cause widespread crop failures and mass famine. Many states would fail and poor, food importing nations would collapse into chaos. The ozone layer would be severely impacted, causing severe negative consequences for human health and the biosphere as a whole.

The collateral damage from even a limited nuclear engagement could be far worse than the initial damage of the blasts.

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2013EF000205

And that's only for a nuclear winter caused by 100 explosions.

Ramp that up to 1,000 explosions and modern human civilization ceases to exist, even for people living thousands of miles away from any direct fallout.

Maybe, but we have already had about 450 above ground nuclear explosions (totaling about 450 MT IIRC). Admittedly spread over a couple of decades, and (except for 2 cases) excluding urban targets with their collateral fires.

Although we did burn out a fair amount of urban areas (London, Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Tokyo, etc.) with conventional munitions.

Many (most?) of the warheads in an India vs Pakistan exchange are going to be relatively small, and likely to (at least initially) be directed to counter force rather than counter value targets.

Still an almost unimaginable disaster, but probably not the end of the world.

When we tested nuclear bombs, we did not test them over major source of black carbon. We didn't test them over forests or modern cities.

We also didn't test them all at once.

The "nuclear winter" scenario analyzed by the scientists involved only 100 warheads of 15 kilotons each.

"The computer-modeled study looked at a nuclear war between the two countries involving 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices on each side, producing massive urban fires and lofting as much as five million metric tons of soot about 50 miles (80 km) into the stratosphere. The soot would absorb enough solar radiation to heat surrounding gases, increasing the break down of the stratospheric ozone layer protecting Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, with up to 70% ozone loss at northern high latitudes."

I'm not an expert on this stuff but that sounds pretty disastrous. Sure, it's not the "end of the world" but it could easily kill hundreds of millions of bystanders.

The nuclear winter, though, was just environmental hooey of a now familiar sort.

That's a worst case scenario (the India/Pakistan war) and one that is untestable. It would depend in everything falling out (er, horrible pun not intended) on just a certain way.

Wow. The commentary on this thread has been of a singularly low quality, if not dominated by silly troll attacks. Almost nobody takes remotely seriously the really serious possibility that I know has Tyler worried, and whose probability of happening seems to be rising. That is an all out nuclear war between the US and Russia, which would be a catastrophe on a scale possibly threatening the extinction of our species.

First of all, Tyler rather understated and did not get into details about the near misses we have already had, mentioning only the very serious one involving misinformation in 1983. There were others, although probably the most serious other one was during the Cuban missile crisis when in fact it got down to the commander of a Soviet submarine, who disobeyed orders that would have led very likely to a nuclear war. The 1983 incident, much scarier given the much larger arsenals around by then, also involved a Soviet commander who disobeyed orders.

The disturbing thing is that in both of those cases rather than rewarding those men for saving the world from serious catastrophe, they were punished for disobeying orders. Eventually the one from 1983 was publicized may years later and received some public praise, although I believe the official military view of him was never altered. He was bad for disobeying orders and was punished, and that still officially stands as being what he deserved.

Now it is not just the complacency about this matter as evidenced by the incredibly silly remarks by many here. it is that the major nuclear powers had tacitly agreed on a Thomas Schelling-style focal point of "no first use of nuclear weapons," even as their official stances (except for China) have continued to leave open the possibility of that. Indeed, this is the sort of thing that these calculations and norms involve, but indeed that norm got established decades ago, with Schelling himself playing a crucial role in bringing this about. Back in the 1950s and into the 60s, with even an occasional loudmouth into the 70s (see Curtis E. Lemay) would advocate that the US make such a first use, either directly on the USSR (see John von Neumann) or in Korea or Vietnam or somewhere else. That talk simply disappeared after awhile on all sides, even as, again, most of the top nuclear powers officially retained the right of first use.

This has now broken down. It was the Russians who started it, back in 2014 after the US objected to their annexing Crimea. A crony of Putin's and news figure (not checking on his name at the moment, but he is easily found) made statements along the lines of how the US should not be opposing the annexation because Russia could "turn New York City into ashes," or words to that effect. Since then we have had some people on our side, including on a couple of occasions the current occupant of the White House raise questions about the no first use norm. it is very clearly breaking down.

Take that and add that to the point Tyler makes about the coming shortening of times to make decisions because of new weapons, the hard fact is that the probability of a nuclear war between Russia and the US has risen sharply and is likely to continue to do so. This is indeed by far the scariest possibility out there, probably more likely than getting hit by an asteroid, which has been getting a lot of press lately, but is much less likely, although about the only thing potentially out there as potentially threatening to the continuance of our species as full-blown thermonuclear war between Russia and the US, which would not need any other nation to be involved to threaten the existence of out species.

Wait a minute. The Russians aren't Soviets anymore. They gave up on collective socialism and an international effort to destroy capitalism. What's the beef with them now? No Russian tried to talk me into voting for whoever it was they wanted me to vote for, if such a thing even occurred. Are Russian interests, both domestic and international, supposed to exactly coincide with that of the US? And if they don't does that make them our enemy? It was OK for the US to annex Hawaii, Panama, Puerto Rico, etc. but the Russians are Satan's servants over Crimea?

Chuck,

All of this is irrelevant. US and Russia have been viewing themselves as rivals again in more recent years, and both have large nuclear arsenals set to be fired largely at each other. As noted earlier, accidents can happen, which is the largest danger and one likely to increase. Again, note that starting in 2014 some Russians have been loosely talking about things like turning New York City into ashes. Does opposing annexing Crimea deserve that kind of talk? Maybe we should be all lovey-dovey, but we are not, despite Putin thinking he has bought out Trump, and if this is the best it can be, it can easily get much worse.

US and Russia are abstractions. They don't have the capability of "viewing themselves as rivals again". Certainly some politicians and pundits on both sides like to construct a rivalry for the purposes of their own aggrandizement but the reality is that the US and Russian are on opposite sides of the planet, don't border on one another, and are true rivals only in ice hockey. In fact, Russian players infest the NHL and Americans play in the KHL without any more than the normal amount of hockey fisticuffs. Any difficulties with the Russians are manufactured by individuals who benefit from that state of affairs. Perhaps that's why Maria Butina is incarcerated, at this point in Chickasha, Oklahoma.

You didn't even mention proliferation. There will be many smaller nations with the capacity to build nuclear arms some of whom will be less disciplined about using them than today's nuclear powers. The only solutions we have today is the good cop (i.e. the UN) and the bad cop (i.e. US-style regime change). Still, I don't worry about all the bad things that will happen. I prefer this over the fearmongering that some in the media try to instigate. Yes, panics and overreactions to nuclear war can be worse than nuclear war itself.

Proliferation just means more countries with small amounts of weapons, most likely to have a local war like India and Pakistan. Yes, this is more likely than US versus Russia, and others above have talked of such cases. But these do not threaten the very existence of our species as an all-out US-Russia nuclear war would, which most here ignored, but I think is on Tyler's mind, and is on mine as well, much more likely than most here think. This is the big and really scary one.

Nuclear weapons are a (((hoax))).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3c17_sY52XE

Twenty minutes ago I watched an elderly blind lady waving her white cane in the cross walk attempting to cross Central Avenue. Cars streamed by her at 45 mph. The fact is, there are too many people. Not because there aren't enough resources to support this number but because such a huge percentage of them don't deserve life itself. Maybe a nuclear confrontation would get rid of at least some of these self-centered narcissists and allow the rest of the world to get back to civilization.

The concern about trying to make quick responses seems reasonable but I don't see how it plausibly makes a first strike without counterattack possible against a nation with nuclear subs.

To be clear I find the underlying danger of nuclear war quite plausible. I just don't think that hypersonic delivery mechanisms make things more risky. Indeed, to the extent they are harder to intercept they may make the expected counter-attack more devastating (because 100% of the missiles from any surviving nuclear sub or bunkered missile will make it through)

That was a sloppy or disingenuous citation of Pinker, who in fact argues in "Better Angels" that nuclear war is the #1 or #2 threat to humanity (along with climate change).

Insofar as fear feeds into the downward spiral, complacency can move the spiral back up.

In other words, if most people don't feel nuclear war is a serious danger, then you know they aren't likely to attack you out of fear that you'll nuke them. And if they know that you know that, the fear goes down further....

How can anyone write about nuclear war and not mention HEMP (high altitude electromagnetic pulse)? A single modest nuclear weapon could burn out microelectronic controllers nationwide, causing a long term shutdown of the electrical grid and leading to death by famine of most Americans. If the attack were launched from an offshore freighter, we might not even know who was responsible.

Comments for this post are closed