An escalating conflict between nuclear powers – but also an accident, a hacker, a terrorist, or an irresponsible leader – could lead to the detonation
An escalating conflict between nuclear powers – but also an accident, a hacker, a terrorist, or an irresponsible leader – could lead to the detonation of nuclear weapons.
Those risks only go to zero if all nuclear weapons are removed from the world. I believe this is what humanity should work towards, but it is exceedingly hard to achieve, at least in the short term. It is therefore important to see that there are additional ways that can reduce the chance of the world suffering the horrors of nuclear war.8
A more peaceful world: Many world regions in which our ancestors fought merciless wars over countless generations are extraordinarily peaceful in our times. The rise of democracy, international trade, diplomacy, and a cultural attitude shift against the glorification of war are some of the drivers credited for this development.9
Making the world a more peaceful place will reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation. Efforts that reduce the chance of any war reduce the chance of nuclear war.
Nuclear treaties: Several non-proliferation treaties have been key in achieving the large reduction of nuclear stockpiles. However, key treaties – like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia – have been suspended and additional agreements could be reached.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became effective in 2021, is a recent development in this direction.
Smaller nuclear stockpiles: Reducing the stockpiles further is seen as an important and achievable goal by experts.
It is considered achievable because smaller stockpiles would still provide the deterrence benefits from nuclear weapons. And it is important as it reduces the risk of accidents and the chance that a possible nuclear war would end civilization.
Better monitoring, better control: The risk can be further reduced by efforts to better control nuclear weapons – so that close calls occur less frequently. Similarly better monitoring systems would reduce the chance of false alarms.
Taking nuclear weapons off ‘hair-trigger alert’ would reduce the risk that any accident that does occur can rapidly spiral out of control. And a well-resourced International Atomic Energy Agency can verify that the agreements in the treaties are met.
Better public understanding, global relations, and culture: Finally I also believe that it will help to see clearly that billions of us share the same goal. None of us wants to live through a nuclear war, none of us wants to die in one. As Reagan said, a nuclear war cannot be won and it would be better to do away with these weapons entirely.
A generation ago a broad and highly visible societal movement pursued the goal of nuclear disarmament. These efforts were to a good extent successful. But since then, this goal has unfortunately lost much of the attention it once received – and this is despite the fact that things have not fundamentally changed: the world still possesses weapons that could kill billions.10 I wish it was a more prominent concern in our generation so that more young people would set themselves the goal to make the world safe from nuclear weapons.
Below this post you find resources on where you can get engaged or donate, to help reduce the danger from nuclear weapons.
I believe some dangers are exaggerated – for example, I believe that the fear of terrorist attacks is often wildly out of proportion with the actual risk. But when it comes to nuclear weapons I believe the opposite is true.
There are many today who hardly give nuclear conflict a thought and I think this is a big mistake.
For eight decades people have been producing nuclear weapons. Several countries have dedicated vast sums of money to their construction. And now we live in a world in which these weapons endanger our entire civilization and our future.
These destructive weapons are perhaps the clearest example that technology and innovation are not only forces for good, they can also enable catastrophic destruction.
Without the Second World War and the Cold War, the world might have never developed these weapons and we might find the idea that anyone could possibly build such weapons unimaginable. But this is not the world we live in. We live in a world with weapons of enormous destructiveness and we have to see the risks that they pose to all of us and find ways to reduce them.
I hope that there are many in the world today who take on the challenge to make the world more peaceful and to reduce the risk from nuclear weapons. The goal has to be that humanity never ends up using this most destructive technology that we ever developed.
Resources to continue reading and finding ways to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons:
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Charlie Giattino, Hannah Ritchie, and Edouard Mathieu for reading drafts of this and for their very helpful comments and ideas.
Additional lists of close calls with nuclear weapons: