It’s possible that these weapons prevent wars and we are all better off for them. It’s also possible that their tremendous destructive potential could cost humanity dearly. Even after a century of peace, a single nuclear war could wreak havoc on the planet. An event of the right magnitude could render insignificant whole categories of other worries: Such as global terrorism, which in 2015 killed 32,658 people around the world. Let’s assume that we have 100 years of mostly peace starting in 2016—in the sense that deterrence worked and there are no major country wars—but that the number who die from terrorism over the same period remains stable, then 3.27M people will have died as a result of terrorism by 2116 (it doesn’t matter whether this is a high, or low, estimate to make the point). Assuming that in 2117 a nuclear war breaks out, and enough bombs are used to cause a nuclear winter (see here), then it’s not unreasonable to imagine the total dead around the world would be something far north of several million—some experts estimate the number could be as high as the billions. Assuming the environmental consequences last a decade, then many more innocent humans would suffer and die as a result of famine and instability.
Estimating the possibility of a nuclear cataclysm of this magnitude is difficult to do. What we do know is that there are 15,695 such weapons on the planet today, which is more than sufficient to render this pale blue dot uninhabitable many times over (while not all of those are operational, the important point is just how many there are, operational or not, and how unreasonable it is to have so many bombs with that level of power available for potential use at any given point in the present or future). However, just because a nuclear strike takes place does not mean a nuclear war will break out. For example, Russia could launch a tactical nuclear strike at an American operating base that kills several thousand, and while that may rattle the nerves of the west, it’s unlikely that we would respond by flattening Saint Petersburg (this same scenario can go either direction). We would more than likely follow up with a show of our own, but it would be equivalent in magnitude, as a nuclear catastrophe is something even the most insane leaders are typically want to avoid—and there are tactical nukes that are much smaller than the kind I most worry about here, although the use of such bombs could weaken the global taboo against atomic weapons in general, thus increasing the chances that larger ones might be used later.
There are many different scenarios that could play out, so it’s ultimately one of the most high stakes games of risk that humans can play (actually, I would say it’s THE most high stakes game of risk). Rather than trying to figure out the probability of the unimaginable, it would simply be better to acknowledge that it’s somewhere above the range of acceptability, since the earth is the only viable planet for humans (at least for the foreseeable future).
This is no longer a game between two players: The odds go up with each new arrival, and our friends in North Korea recently launched what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile disguised as a satellite. Back in January they also carried out their fourth nuclear test (smaller than they claimed, but it was a real nuke nonetheless). While some in the press have sought to dismiss the North’s antics, let us be reminded that trial and error is the name of the game (even for the United States), and with the right amount of perseverance and scientific know how, even Kim Jong-un can have what he wants: The ability to accurately deliver those warheads to American soil. His is a country so crazy I can’t distinguish between their actual behavior and Twitter satire. That’s something worth thinking about.
The world is not going to end tomorrow, and I’m optimistic about the overall future of homo sapien sapiens. I think that the trend lines are positive, even in spite of the fact that there are many obstacles ahead. For most of us, we can include the threat of nuclear annihilation in that category of “terrible possibilities” that, while might happen, almost certainly won’t. But “almost certainly” is not certainly. And what makes nuclear weapons distinct from other unlikely worries is their potential for scalable calamity. If a nuclear event were to take place, it wouldn’t be just your own life at risk, but your family, friends, and many billions of others around the planet, too. To understand this is to understand how far we’ve come as a species: With great things comes great responsibility. Not only can we measure gravity, but we can destroy the planet. It’s on all of us to remember that, and to ensure that we do everything possible as a species to eliminate the threat (or at least severely curtail the risk). Happy Valentines Day.