There are many future risks to our planet. The risk that seems to cause most concern is climate change. I share these concerns. However, there are some risks which, if they materialised, would be even worse than those of climate change. An asteroid strike, such as the collision 66 million years ago, is in this category. But this is a most improbable event, essentially 0% in the next 50 years. There is, however, a risk that would be absolutely catastrophic, and whose probability of occurring is not remote. I speak, of course, of nuclear strike.
There are two issues to consider: the degree of the catastrophe, and its probability of occurring. Regarding the extent of the catastrophe, one can refer to the website Nukemap. Here one finds evidence-based apocalyptic predictions. In order to make sense of these it is necessary to appreciate that nuclear bombs destroy human life in three zones radiating out from the epicentre: the fire ball; the shock wave; and the area of a residual radiation (whose direction depends on prevailing winds). If a relatively small atomic bomb, such as a 455 kiloton bomb from a nuclear submarine, landed on Glasgow, it would kill an estimated quarter of a million people and injure half a million, not taking into account radiation damage. The bomb released by the Soviets into the upper atmosphere at 50 megatons (Tsar Bomba) would, if it landed on London, kill over 4.5 million people and injure 3 million more (again not including the radiation damage that would most likely spread across northern Europe). Daugherty, Levi and Van Hippel calculate that deployment of only 1% of the world’s nuclear armaments would cause up to 56 million deaths and 61 million casualties in the book ‘The Medical Implications of Nuclear War‘. Clearly, larger conflagrations pose an existential threat that could wipe out the whole of the northern hemisphere. When I look at my lovely grandchildren, sleeping in their beds at night, I sometimes think of that. And all of the above harms exclude indirect effects resulting from collapse of law and order, financial systems, supply chains, and so on.
So, nuclear war could be catastrophic, but to calculate the net expected burden of disease and disability we need to know the probability of its occurrence. The risk of nuclear strike must be seen as material. During, and immediately following, the Cold War there were at least three points at which missile strikes were imminent. They were all a matter of miscalculation. The most likely cause of nuclear war is a false positive signal of a strike, perhaps simulated by a terrorist group. These risks are increasing since at least eight countries now have nuclear weapons. The risk of a single incident, leading to the death of, say, 1 million people, might be as high as 50% over the next 50 years according to some models. Another widely cited figure from Hellman is 2% per year. The risk of an attack with retaliatory strikes, and hence over 50 million dead, would be lower – say 10% over the next 50 years. Identifying the risk of future events may seem quixotic, but not trying to do so is like the ostrich putting its head in the sand. Using slogans such as ‘alarmist’ is simply a way of avoiding uncomfortable thoughts better confronted. Let us say the risk of a strike with retaliation is indeed 10% over 50 years, and that 50 million causalities will result. If the average causality is 40 years of age, then the expected life years lost over 50 years would be about 200,000,000 (50m x 40 x 0.1). This is without discounting, but why would one discount these lives on the basis of current time-preferences?
Given the high expected loss of life (life years multiplied by probability), it seems that preventing nuclear war is up there with climate change. The effects of nuclear war are immediate and destroy infrastructure, while climate change provides plenty of warning and infrastructure can be preserved, even if at high cost. Avoiding nuclear war deserves no less attention. In 2014 the World Health Organization published a report that estimated that climate change would be responsible for 241,000 additional deaths in the year 2030, which is likely an underestimate as their model could not quantify a number of causal pathways, such as economic damage, or water scarcity. But we have time to adapt and reduce this risk – nuclear war would be sudden and would disrupt coping mechanisms, leading to massive social and economic costs, along with large numbers of deaths and people diseased or maimed for life. Nuclear strike is public health enemy number one in my opinion. It is difficult to pursue the possible options to reduce this risk without entering the world of politics, so this must be pursued within the pages of your News Blog.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- Sentry: Earth Impact Monitoring. Impact Risk Data. 2018.
- Daugherty W, Levi B, Von Hippel F. Casualties Due to the Blast, Heat, and Radioactive Fallout from Various Hypothetical Nuclear Attacks on the United States. In: Solomon F & Marston RQ (eds.) The Medical Implications of Nuclear War. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press (US); 1986.
- Barrett AM, Baum SD, Hostetler K. Analyzing and Reducing the Risks of Inadvertent Nuclear War Between the United States and Russia. Sci Glob Security. 2013; 21: 106-33.
- Hellman ME. Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence. The Bent of Tau Beta Pi. 2008 : Spring: 14-22.
- World Health Organization. Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2014.