A nuclear war, by accident, miscalculation, or deliberate use, could lead to as much carnage in the first few days as all of World War I or II. Billions more could be threatened by second-order effects: radioactive fallout, the collapse of critical infrastructure, and mass famine. The ensuing chaos could irrevocably destabilise civilization and send humanity down a dark path.
Nuclear weapons may be the domain of governments, but civil society has played a key role in nuclear risk reduction. Analysis and activism helped end nuclear testing, slowed the arms race in the 1980s and created incentives for negotiated reductions. Scientist-to-scientist exchanges and backchannel diplomacy, supported by foundations, drafted the blueprints for government efforts like the Nunn-Lugar initiative, which secured and eliminated vast quantities of weapons and materials after the Soviet Union collapsed. Nongovernmental efforts were credited with helping secure bipartisan Senate ratification for the New START treaty in 2010.
Despite this track record, there is less than $40 million per year in philanthropic spending on nuclear policy. Compare this to climate philanthropy, another serious challenge for humanity, which receives a total of $10 billion, or about $250 for every $1 spent on nuclear policy philanthropy—and still this isn’t enough.
Much work remains to be done. Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on high-alert, ready to launch in minutes. These systems can never be fully failsafe, as nuclear deterrence relies on the manipulation of risk. Cognitive science has shown that people respond poorly to high-stakes decisions under time pressures. Recent trends are troubling:
- A conventional war in the nuclear shadow: Many experts believe the war in Ukraine marks the highest period of nuclear risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- A looming three-way arms race: all nuclear arms control treaties between the U.S. and Russia have ended or been suspended without replacement. China could more than triple its arsenal to 1,500 warheads by 2035. All sides are developing new nuclear delivery systems with destabilising characteristics.
- New risks from new technologies: Advances in the speed and accuracy of weapons systems and increased reliance on digital systems creates entanglement between conventional and nuclear systems. Artificial Intelligence could further complicate the decision making. In a “digital fog of war” leaders will face high-stakes decisions under uncertainty, and may believe their only option is to act first. Technological change is not inherently destabilising but must be better managed to avoid false alarms and inadvertent nuclear escalation.
- Nuclear philanthropy is neglected despite the above trends and key historic role of philanthropy in reducing nuclear risk. In 2020 the board of the largest funder in the field, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, made a decision to wind down its work.