This comment is intended to provoke debate and start a dialogue between nuclear risk reducers (particularly, we hope, the European Leadership Network and its sister organisation, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network) and philanthropy (particularly, we hope, members of the Effective Altruism movement). So it explores misconceptions on both sides in deliberately broad terms that should not be taken too much to heart.
Here's the proposition:
- Great power competition is a greater driver of existential risk than all natural risks combined.  Yet philanthropy spends only a small amount to reduce security risks, still less to reduce existential risks, and of that only a tiny proportion to reduce nuclear risks. Less than 1% of last year’s peace and security philanthropy went to nuclear issues. Of that, around 60% came from a single source - the MacArthur Foundation - which by 2025 will stop investing in nuclear risk reduction.
- Meanwhile, great power relations are deteriorating. So nuclear risks are growing faster than other existential threats. And the grip of nuclear powers on these nuclear risks is diminishing.
- The space and the need for collaboration between longtermist philanthropy and non-governmental nuclear risk reducers is growing correspondingly.
- There are many NGOs working to reduce nuclear risks. But almost none are working with longtermist philanthropy and very few with much evidence of success. If the obstacles to collaboration could be overcome, the combination of vision, resources and entrepreneurial flair on the philanthropic side and the policy experience and reach of nuclear risk reducers could be highly effective.
Where do the obstacles to better collaboration lie?
Perhaps philanthropy regards nuclear risk as:
- Intractable, because longtermists and NGOs can only influence Western policy, not other nuclear actors.
- Largely unquantifiable – and therefore less attractive to pursue. It’s hard to assess the value of interventions using the ambivalent peace/catastrophic war paradigm. Too often, proposed interventions look to potential funders like mere talking shops.
- A field populated by NGOs with poor theories of change: perhaps activist but ineffective, or too obsessed with the detail, or too close to government, or with little engagement from government. So, not innovative and not worth investing in.
- Lacking public buy-in and therefore scalability: activism and consumer choices have little impact on great power relations.
- A purely government responsibility in ways that perhaps climate, AI and bio are not.
- A lesser danger than some other risks: humanity would survive the use of nuclear weapons and human civilisation would probably do so in some form. And anyway we’ve lived with nuclear risk for 77 years, proving that deterrence works.
- Not lacking attention: the field is crowded.
- Uncomfortably unfamiliar terrain.
Perhaps the nuclear risk community regards philanthropy as:
- Comparatively uninformed about the rising nuclear risks – though Russia’s war against Ukraine is changing this.
- Too swayed by political, intellectual and philanthropic trends.
- Too swayed by more obvious and tangible risks like climate, AI or pandemics and not by the more binary peace/catastrophe choice.
- Too inclined to prioritise the survival of the human species in the abstract or the long-term over the more relevant survival of human civilisation or humanitarian instinct to guard against catastrophe.
- Unaware of the critical role the nuclear risk community has had in averting catastrophe.
- Inexplicably failing to dump large sums in the laps of nuclear risk people who feel that their work is truly deserving!
If so, what might be the bridges between such mindsets?
If any of the caricatures above are true, clearly more humility on the part of nuclear risk reducers and more curiosity on the part of philanthropists and ‘philanthropic aggregators’ would be useful.
Rather than discounting the nuclear risk community’s work, philanthropists might try harder to influence that work, and nuclear risk reducers might be more open to adapting it, to improve impact, experiment with models of change, strengthen communications, and expand the stakeholders reached.
Beyond that, what shared concerns might enable more effective communication? Three suggestions:
- Great power competition
William MacAskill and Toby Ord both consider great power competition to be a greater driver of existential risk than all natural risks combined. From climate harms and climate diplomacy to advanced AI to bio-paranoia and nuclear miscalculation, it is the great powers – above all the US, China, Russia and maybe India – that most create and drive the risk and impede the solutions.
The competition and the associated risks are on the rise, and effective global governance eludes us. Maybe we should target the great power competition rather than the individual risks, and seek ways to strengthen effective global cooperation?
MacAskill shows that the current plasticity in each of the principal areas of existential risk is not only unusual compared with the past, but also the future. By targeting great power competition itself rather than individual associated risks, we can change the trajectories of all man-made existential risks, including nuclear risk, before it is too late.
Consequently, nuclear risk reducers have things to offer the wider existential risk community and vice versa. Nuclear is one of the currencies great powers most trade in – the ultimate measure of power to influence global governance. Nuclear gets you to the heart of great power self-conception. Nuclear tension, let alone nuclear conflict, is a driver of other anthropogenic existential risks, and undermines the global cooperation upon which our collective capacity to tackle these risks depends. Nuclear risk reducers have grappled with great power competition and risk reduction for longer than any other risk has been addressed. Whilst they may be addressing a particular technology, they are actually focused on the core great power problem – the management of strategic relationships amongst elites who see no other means to contain their opponents’ worst excesses. There’s history and accumulated practical experience.
They may be unimpressed by each other’s achievements but the philanthropic and nuclear communities both desperately want to make progress. Yet nuclear risk is backsliding fast, while philanthropy is finding it hard to gain traction.
This may be especially true of Effective Altruism (EA) and nuclear. EA is good at theorising about what needs to be done and not so good at knowing how to do it within established and largely closed policy communities. The nuclear community is stuffed full of practitioners who have had experience in making policy and changing it. But they are fragmented, and increasingly lost in the complexities of disruptive technological developments. They would benefit not just from EA money but EA leadership, networks and entrepreneurial know-how.
Greater philanthropic support for the nuclear risk community would help diversify the dialogue around nuclear risk and ensure that it is not left to competing powers amongst whom co-operation is inherently difficult and is deteriorating.
3. Don’t rely on governments
Both philanthropy and NGOs tend to exist to fill the gaps left by governments. So the perception that nuclear dialogue is the preserve of great power governments has perhaps contributed to the current situation.
Nuclear weapons governments tend to believe that they’ve got the nuclear risks more under control than other forms of existential risk – or at least they seek to give that impression. So non-governmental interventions could alter great power thinking more on nuclear risks than on other kinds of risk.
Maybe the two communities, working together, could be more than the sum of their parts. They should act together and do what governments cannot.
The ELN and its sister network, the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, are unique in taking a network approach to the problems of great power competition. Their members include practitioners from all the great powers, meaning they can put their proposals on desks in the Kremlin and the White House, the Elysee and 10 Downing Street and bring together influential leaders from Beijing, New Delhi, and Islamabad. That means they can represent the future and the present more impartially, can reach more than just Western powers, and are obliged to advance solutions that could work for all sides.
Adam Thomson and Paul Ingram
European Leadership Network, November 2022
See his argument in The Precipice, where Ord suggests that around one-tenth of the total existential risk of 16% (⅙) before 2120 is attributable to Great Power war.)
For instance, Moscow’s postponement of a planned meeting of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s implementing body, the Bilateral Consultative Commission. This shows the degree to which conflict in Ukraine is not only a nuclear risk in itself, but also stalls dialogue on broader strategic stability issues
Direct action and empowering consumers to make ethical choices has increased the visibility of, and public understanding around climate change. Furthermore, public debate around nuclear weapons rarely attains comparable visibility with the exception of times when Trident is up for renewal.
Though Ord suggests that it is possible that a full-scale nuclear war may not represent an existential catastrophe, he concedes that uncertainties around the effect of nuclear winter mean that we cannot estimate its true impact.
See discussion in chapter 4 of William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future
There are still more than 8000 nuclear warheads on earth with the US State Department forecasting that China’s arsenal will grow.
For obvious reasons governments are incentivised to not merely downplay risks but often refuse to admit their existence. In addition the complexity and scale of the relevant infrastructure involved in building and maintaining nuclear capability also weakens the appetite for and ability to conduct appropriate scrutiny.