Background and Acknowledgements:
This write-up represents part of an ongoing Founders Pledge research project to understand the landscape of nuclear risk and philanthropic support of nuclear risk reduction measures. It is in some respects a work in progress and can be viewed as a Google Document here and on Founders Pledge's website here.
With thanks to James Acton, Conor Barnes, Tom Barnes, Patty-Jane Geller, Matthew Gentzel, Matt Lerner, Jeffrey Lewis, Ankit Panda, Andrew Reddie, and Carl Robichaud for reviewing this document and for their thoughtful comments and suggestions.
“The Nuclear Equivalent of Mosquito Nets”
In philanthropy, the term “impact multipliers” refers to features of the world that make one funding opportunity relatively more effective than another. Stacking these multipliers makes effectiveness a “conjunction of multipliers;” understanding this conjunction can in turn help guide philanthropists seeking to maximize impact under high uncertainty.
Not all impact multipliers are created equal, however. To systematically engage in effective giving, philanthropists must understand the largest impact multipliers — “critical multipliers” — those features that most dramatically cleave more effective interventions from less effective interventions. In global health and development, for example, one critical multiplier is simply to focus on the world’s poorest people. Because of large inequalities in wealth and the decreasing marginal utility of money, helping people living in extreme poverty rather than people in the Global North is a critical multiplier that winnows the field of possible interventions more than many other possible multipliers.
Additional considerations — the prevalence of mosquito-borne illnesses, the low cost and scalability of bednet distribution, and more — ultimately point philanthropists in global health and development to one of the most effective interventions to reduce suffering in the near term: funding the distribution of insecticide-treated bednets.
This write-up represents an attempt to identify a defensible critical multiplier in nuclear philanthropy, and potentially to move one step closer to finding “the nuclear equivalent of mosquito nets.”
Impact Multipliers in Nuclear Philanthropy
There are many potential impact multipliers in nuclear philanthropy. For example, focusing on states with large nuclear arsenals may be more impactful than focusing on nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism would be horrific and a single attack in a city (e.g. with a dirty bomb) could kill thousands of people, injure many more, and cause long-lasting damage to the physical and mental health of millions. All-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia, however, would be many times worse. Hundreds of millions of people would likely die from the direct effects of a war. If we believe nuclear winter modeling, moreover, there may be many more deaths from climate effects and famine. In the worst case, civilization could collapse. Simplifying these effects, suppose for the sake of argument that a nuclear terrorist attack could kill 100,000 people, and an all-out nuclear war could kill 1 billion people. All else equal, in this scenario it would be 10,000 times more effective to focus on preventing all-out war than it is to focus on nuclear terrorism.
Generalizing this pattern, philanthropists ought to prioritize the largest nuclear wars (again, all else equal) when thinking about additional resources at the margin. This can be operationalized with real numbers — nuclear arsenal size, military spending, and other measures can serve as proxy variables for the severity of nuclear war, yielding rough multipliers. This would likely lead philanthropists to prioritize adversarial relationships between the world’s “great powers.” Similarly, because risk is a function of probability and consequence, effective philanthropists can prioritize the nuclear relationships that are most likely to lead to war (and, further, those that are most likely to draw in larger powers).
These impact multipliers are to some extent obvious, but they already yield useful conclusions. They suggest a focus on the behavior of major nuclear-armed states and within this, a focus on preventing the largest wars. This may differ substantially from the approach of some traditional philanthropic actors working on nuclear security.
High Uncertainty of Interventions
Nonetheless, these multipliers only get us so far and do not help narrow the field much further. If we care about preventing all-out war between the United States and Russia, for example, what should we do? Should we fund track II dialogues to discuss the future of arms control after the sunset of the New START agreement in 2026? Should we focus on understanding the effects of applications of new technologies like artificial intelligence on strategic stability? Should we promote civil defense and agricultural resilience to prepare for worst case scenarios? Should we fund grassroots campaigns for nuclear arms control and disarmament?
Philanthropists may have some considerations that bear on these questions. For example, we may believe that nuclear disarmament is an intractable goal, given the political and military realities of the world (or that the world currently represents one of the more stable distributions of capabilities). More fundamentally, however, we continue to have a poor understanding of the sources of nuclear risk, its probability, and its consequences. Unlike other issue areas where the mechanism of change is clearer, scholars of nuclear war disagree on fundamental issues, like whether a “no first-use” or “sole purpose” declaratory policy would be desirable.
This uncertainty is not just about non-expert funder uncertainty that could be resolved by learning more about the field. Subject-matter experts may be able to build complicated inside-view models of how nuclear risk works, but their theories remain untested and often untestable. (In some cases, subject-matter experts may simply refrain from considering certain kinds of interventions for a variety of reasons, as explained below under Explanation 7.) Historical accounts of state behavior can help provide some evidence, but these studies have the problem of the counterfactual. Probabilistic forecasting can help aggregate the “wisdom of the crowds” but in questions about low-probability high-consequence risks, these methods lack the objective scoring metrics that make them so powerful in other contexts. Similarly, new attempts in international relations to construct “experimental wargames” appear promising, but also run into the problem of “ecological validity” — how well do the games actually represent the reality they purport to simulate?
The problem, fortunately, is that the world has very limited experience with nuclear war, and thus there is little opportunity for falsification of theories and limited reference classes and base rates for understanding nuclear war, the likelihood of escalation, and the consequences of different kinds of nuclear war. This allows for a wide range of plausible viewpoints and possible interventions for philanthropists (illustrating this, Herman Kahn apparently liked to quip, “How many thermonuclear wars have you fought recently?” and Alain Enthoven reportedly replied to an official who criticized his lack of military experience, “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have”).
We have established two tentative points about nuclear philanthropy (which also hold for other international security questions):
- Impact-oriented philanthropists ought to prioritize preventing the largest wars, all else equal;
- There is high uncertainty on the effectiveness of specific interventions, and often no way to rigorously compare them.
Given these two points, we can look to neglectedness as a potential impact multiplier and pursue a strategy of “robust diversification” to better prioritize interventions within the nuclear field. We are borrowing this concept from Founders Pledge’s Guide to the Changing Landscape of High-Impact Climate Philanthropy.
Robust diversification has two components:
- “Portfolio diversification with negative correlations” — “When deeply uncertain about the precise returns of different strategies, we combine strategies where the uncertainties are negatively correlated, so that when one uncertainty is resolved ‘pessimistically’ chances are the other uncertainties are resolved positively.”
- “Robustness to the worst worlds” — Given assumptions about non-linear damages (which apply for nuclear war, where climate effects could make the largest wars disproportionately worse than smaller wars), we ought to “prioritize strategies that are effective under pessimistic assumptions.”
In practice, robustness to the worst worlds means understanding how to reduce nuclear risk “when deterrence fails” — that is, when a nuclear war breaks out. Similarly, in a great power conflict, we care not about any clash, and care most about all-out “total war” with massive targeting of cities and civilians (especially if power-law distribution assumptions about wars hold). As the next section suggests, philanthropists focusing on nuclear issues appear to disproportionately neglect these very interventions.
The field of nuclear risk reduction can be overwhelming, and the option space of possible interventions is large. The considerations outlined in the previous section, however, point to an important distinction between interventions that helps to categorize possible funding opportunities: whether an intervention acts to the “left” or “right” of “boom” — before or after a nuclear strike.
The diagram below roughly outlines the difference between “left” and “right” of boom interventions. In short, interventions that seek to act before the first use of a nuclear weapon are “left” on the spectrum (akin to “left of launch”), and interventions that seek to act after the first use of a nuclear weapon are “right.” The neatness of this division is artificial, and in practice the differences are fuzzy, but it points towards a real distinction.
Left of Boom
Right of Boom
To re-emphasize, not all nuclear war is equal and, for impact-minded philanthropists, almost all of the cost of nuclear war lies well to the right of boom on the spectrum presented here. This is especially true if, as seems likely, several of the main plausible existential risks — civilizational collapse and extreme nuclear winter — only obtain at the far right end of the spectrum.
Funding right-of-boom interventions does not necessarily mean only funding food stockpiling or bunker-building. A “right-of-boom” intervention could be a large-scale research project on the problem of how to keep limited nuclear war from escalating into all-out war. As explained above, this distinction — between small and large wars — is likely among the most salient distinctions in nuclear issues for anyone interested in maximizing impact. Such a research project may find that limited war is unlikely to remain limited (e.g. there are historical base rates on escalation in other contexts, or in well-designed wargames), and thus make other right-of-boom interventions appear less promising, or it may open up new lines of research into escalation management.
Moreover, some interventions work on both sides. For example, deterrence is important both left and right of boom, e.g. to deter further escalation from a limited nuclear war. Similarly, war termination (of a conventional war) can be an important left-of-boom intervention. Interventions on one side can strengthen those on others. In short, the distinction drawn here can be useful, but we should be careful not to oversimplify the categories.
Finally, right-of-boom interventions need not be unilateral. As was recognized by some in the Cold War, right-of-boom work like civil defense can in fact be conceptualized as a kind of risk-reduction exercise analogous to arms control, which can be pursued in bilateral or even multilateral fora, track II discussions, and more. For example, states can have technical exchanges on how to best protect civilian populations in the event of a nuclear war.
The following sections ask three questions. First, is the apparent neglect of “right of boom” interventions a real phenomenon? Second, if it is real, is this neglect based on evidence or otherwise rigorously justified, or does it reflect other biases (e.g. political ideology)? Third, how should new funders interested in the nuclear field approach the problem of “right of boom philanthropy”?
Quantifying Right-of-Boom Philanthropy
To begin to answer these questions, we searched through all grants in the subject area “Nuclear Issues” of the Peace and Security Funding Index and identified any grants that may be considered “right of boom” based on the descriptions in the database. For ease of reference, we have included the relevant grants in the appendix. To be conservative, we also counted those grants where it was unclear whether they ought to be considered right of boom. The analysis suggests that the phenomenon identified anecdotally is real: right-of-boom projects receive at most one-thirtieth of the total funding of the nuclear field.
Source: Author’s estimate, using data from Peace and Security Funding Index and other sources.
Because of the inclusiveness of the search, 1-in-30 is likely an upper bound estimate (i.e., the actual share is likely much smaller). Nuclear subject-matter experts interviewed for this project also suggested that 1-in-30 intuitively seems too high. For example, James Acton, the co-director of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program, said “1-in-30 is an upper bound [...] I have to say I would be pretty surprised if it was as much as 1-in-30.”
Government Work Right of Boom
Complicating this picture, some government agencies do consider right-of-boom interventions. For example, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is tasked in part with understanding how a nuclear war would actually be fought, and some of its subcomponent offices may spend much time on right-of-boom interventions. Public traces of STRATCOM’s war planning analyses and their right-of-boom focus can be found in e.g. the Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy:
“to strengthen the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence, the United States will continue to field a range of nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities that provide U.S. leadership with options that can be tailored to deter potential adversaries, assure allies and partners, achieve U.S. objectives should deterrence fail, and hedge against an uncertain future.”
Specifically, phrases such as “If deterrence fails, the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, and its allies, and partners” and “elements of U.S. nuclear forces are intended to provide limited, flexible, and graduated response options” hint at the importance of right-of-boom planning in U.S. nuclear employment strategy.
I have so far been unable to quantify the amount of within-government right-of-boom work, and this may be impossible, given classification issues. Nonetheless, government work in some parts of the U.S. government — parts of STRATCOM, parts of Homeland Security, etc. — leans more heavily to the right of boom than some non-governmental organizations do.
It is tempting to suggest that non-governmental spending left of boom is actually a corrective to governmental bias for right-of-boom interventions. In other words, the private sector is providing more balance to the overall analysis of nuclear issues. As discussed below, however, I do not think that there really is a governmental bias for right-of-boom interventions. Rather, there appear to be merely pockets of the government that truly see right-of-boom analysis as part of their portfolio.
STRATCOM’s interest in these topics may, however, give non-governmental right-of-boom analyses and interventions more leverage over government thinking and allocations. Secrecy, organizational culture, self-selection, and other sources of bias may fundamentally distort the government’s analysis of right-of-boom interventions, and non-governmental analysis can provide new ideas, balance, criticism, and corrections. For example, non-governmental analysis can focus on the wellbeing of humanity rather than the U.S. national interest (to the extent that these may diverge). Moreover, STRATCOM’s war planners likely take a specific “warfighting” lens to right-of-boom planning that may not explore the full spectrum of right-of-boom interventions.
Finally, government interest in Right-of-Boom work may increase the policy leverage of non-governmental right-of-boom analyses. James Acton explained this perspective: “The fact that STRATCOM is working on this, for me, is an argument for why we should work on it. Because it's an issue that the government cares about, and it's a lot harder to make policy change when the government is not thinking about an issue than when it is.” In other words, just as climate philanthropy ought to leverage government action to have the highest possible impact, so nuclear philanthropy can leverage government interest in right-of-boom interventions to maximize its impact.
Possible Explanations for Neglectedness
Neglectedness is not by itself a reason to fund a class of interventions. Rather, philanthropists ought to care about undue neglectedness — is an issue or intervention neglected relative to its importance and tractability, and is it being neglected for the wrong reasons (i.e. reasons that do not affect cost-effectiveness of donations)? Therefore, this section explores possible explanations for why traditional philanthropists do not focus on this.
Explanation 1: Differing Worldviews and Moral Priorities
It would be uncharitable to say that most funders and grantees in nuclear weapons-related philanthropy are “wrong” to neglect right-of-boom interventions. Rather, the prioritization framework that would lead one to focus on the most extreme kinds of nuclear wars is simply unintuitive to many people. The idea that some nuclear wars are worse than others, for example, may not make sense to people with non-consequentialist views. Funders and grantees might believe, e.g.:
- The very existence of nuclear weapons is immoral, even if they are never used;
- Disarmament and non-proliferation are ends in themselves (rather than means to prevent suffering);
- The point of nuclear weapons philanthropy and advocacy is to correct past and present injustices.
Holding any of these views might lead funders to endorse the kind of allocation described above.
Explanation 2: Right-of-Boom interventions are politically/ideologically unpalatable
Relatedly, there are political or ideological reasons why funders may neglect right-of-boom interventions. Few non-governmental analysts and scholars are incentivized to conduct right-of-boom research. James Acton explained that, “It’s an issue where for very different reasons, ideologically few people have an interest in doing this work” and that “people on the [political] Left don't want to acknowledge there is a possibility of controlling nuclear war, because that could be an argument for the nuclear-armed SLCM or the low-yield D5 [...] and people on the Right don't want to do this, because they look like Dr. Strangelove, and everyone thinks they're crazy.”
This may stem from the historically hawkish political associations of Cold War right-of-boom research, which to some appeared to downplay nuclear risk and accelerate the arms race. More broadly, the very idea of escalation management may simply have appeared outdated in the post-Cold War environment. As Ankit Panda explained, “For much of the last 30 years post-Cold War, the idea of studying escalation management in a nuclear war was just not where the times were taking us. Nuclear arsenals were declining. The idea of nuclear war was broadly kind of pushed aside.” Yet even in the Cold War, much right-of-boom thinking was neglected relative to the resources invested in the nuclear weapons complex and the risks taken by nuclear states. As Edward Geist, a historian and policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, has written about the relative neglect of civil defense, “both the Soviet and American governments were willing to risk the destruction of civilization, yet saw comparatively little reason to try to save it if they came to blows.”
Explanation 3: Right-of-Boom interventions present PR/optics problems for funders.
Related to the points above, these kinds of interventions are also difficult for donors to justify to the public, especially if they want to seem to be focused on peace. A foundation’s board, in particular, may object to funding right-of-boom interventions on grounds of the historical associations of such work with hawkish Cold Warriors.
Explanation 4: Right-of-Boom interventions are too technical for some funders to understand
These kinds of interventions are often more technical than other nuclear interventions. Funding grassroots campaigns to protest nuclear weapons is easy to understand; making sure limited nuclear use does not escalate to all-out war may involve game theory or details about the yields of various weapons.
Explanation 5: Funders Think Right-of-Boom Interventions are Intractable
Another possible explanation is that right-of-boom interventions are fundamentally intractable in some sense. For example, a funder might believe that nuclear war, once begun, is almost certain to escalate to all-out war, such that an attempt to limit nuclear war would be futile. Similarly, attempts at civil defense have long been ridiculed as futile in the face of the overwhelming threat of nuclear war. There are two problems with this reasoning, however.
- First, we simply don’t know whether this is true. In fact, the opposite could be true, and the outbreak of nuclear war is extremely difficult to prevent, but limiting war is easy. There has been no nuclear war, and only highly theoretical work on escalation, so we do not know how intractable these interventions really are.
- Second, we want to be prepared for the possibility that left-of-boom interventions fail; this is part of the reasoning behind robust diversification. The history of “near misses” in the Cold War suggests that accidents simply do happen. The world ought to be prepared for the scenarios where we find ourselves in a nuclear war, and want to know how to limit the damage.
Explanation 6: Funders Think Right-of-Boom Interventions are Dangerous
A second explanation — related to explanation 2 — is that right-of-boom interventions are in some way dangerous. For example, one argument against studying how to keep nuclear war limited is that doing so would itself make nuclear war seem “winnable” and thus weaken the nuclear taboo. Similarly, working on civil defense and resilience interventions, the argument goes, would make the war seem “survivable” and thus make war more likely. Again, this fails to account for the fact that accidents and unintended escalation do happen, and need to be insured against. Second, this argument neglects the possibility that e.g. civil defense interventions increase the attacker’s uncertainty about the effects of their weapons, thus potentially making nuclear use less likely.
The overall concern about moral hazard and informational hazards is valid. It is also the very question that some people do not wish to ask, and that more funding on escalation management could help to answer.
Explanation 7: Grantees Are Not Interested in this Work
The previous six explanations have focused on the perspective of funders, but we should note that there may also be non-funder-related reasons for why right-of-boom projects do not get funded — grantees may simply be uninterested. Analysts at think tanks and scholars at universities may share several of the views outlined above, and may therefore not submit right-of-boom grant proposals in the first place. Moreover, a dynamic may ensue where analysts assume funders are uninterested in this work, and funders in turn are unable to find worthwhile grantees, thus making fewer grants and reinforcing the idea that traditional philanthropists won’t fund this kind of project.
Explanation 8: Funders and Think Tanks Take Their Lead from Government Interests
Finally, the non-governmental nuclear space interacts with the government in many ways, including conferences, other think tank events, and the movement of people into and out of government. The predominance of left-of-boom work in much of the nuclear enterprise (such as in the Departments of State and Energy, the National Security Council, Congress, and multilateral organizations like the IAEA) stands in contrast to the relatively few organizations who see right-of-boom work as explicitly part of their portfolio (STRATCOM, Homeland Security, and parts of National Laboratories, among others). The influence of this apparent imbalance on foundation staff and boards may in turn shape non-governmental work.
Robust Diversification with Right-of-Boom Interventions
This write-up outlines several tentative observations about the landscape of nuclear philanthropy:
- Traditional philanthropy appears to neglect right-of-boom interventions;
- This is not necessarily for rational reasons, but may reflect funder biases or non-consequentialist worldviews;
- These are the very interventions that might keep a small nuclear war from becoming a civilizational-collapse event.
The 30-to-1 neglectedness of these kinds of interventions, combined with these facts, seems to suggest that we ought to consider the right-of-boom distinction as a potentially promising impact multiplier.
Conclusion and Next Steps
This analysis suggests that attention and political preferences skew interventions in such a way that makes robust diversification the best strategy for effective philanthropy on the margin for nuclear philanthropy, as it does for climate philanthropy. We expect similar kinds of biases to be found in other cause areas, but have not investigated this further. On great power war more broadly, the difference between border skirmishes and firebombing cities is similarly important — how can we prevent the worst outcomes and decrease escalation likelihood?
This analysis is intended as a first approach to the problem of right-of-boom philanthropy. Additional research on these kinds of interventions may be especially important in light of U.S.-China competition and conflict. Whereas research on limited war between the U.S. and Russia goes back to the early years of the Cold War, scholars of Chinese nuclear strategy have suggested that Chinese experts hold beliefs about the (un)controllability of nuclear escalation that differ fundamentally from the beliefs of U.S. experts and military strategists.  These differences may be a major factor shaping the likelihood of nuclear war and escalation dynamics within such a war.
Despite the preliminary nature of the analysis, however, the possibility of a 1-to-30 (and likely much higher) impact multiplier helps to narrow the field of possible high-impact interventions. All else equal, philanthropists looking to maximize the relative effectiveness of their donations in reducing nuclear risk ought to leverage this neglectedness multiplier when choosing where to give.
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Appendix: PSFG Right-of-Boom Grants
(Descriptions are quotes from the PSFG database entries)
|Funder Name||Recipient Name|
Right of Boom?
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||George Washington University|
|For research on deterring and controlling escalation of major power conflicts|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||Stevens Institute of Technology|
|To support project, Reinventing Civil Defense: Returning Nuclear Security to Civil Society|
|Michael Dunitz Crisis Foundation||Global Zero|
|Emergency food relief response|
|Good Ventures Foundation||Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey|
|For research on the potential climatological and subsequent ecological and social effects of large nuclear conflicts|
|Good Ventures Foundation||Rutgers the State University of Nj|
|Research on potential climatic and human impacts of a nuclear conflict|
|Good Ventures Foundation||Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey|
|Research on potential climatic and human impacts of a nuclear conflict|
|Good Ventures Foundation||Rutgers School of Health Professions|
|Research on effects of nuclear conflict|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||University of California at Berkeley|
|For a project on the implications of nuclear weapons with alternate effects regimes or low yields on global nuclear stability|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||Johns Hopkins University|
|The Nuclear Studies Research Initiative (NSRI) is an interdisciplinary effort to identify, support, and inspire rigorous, accessible, and policy relevant scholarship on nuclear issues. NSRI is a network of emerging and established experts that convenes scholars from various disciplines in order to improve the quality and salience of nuclear scholarship. The initiative will examine core issues in nuclear studies, including deterrence and compellence, inadvertent escalation, and the effects of arms control agreements.|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||University of California at Berkeley|
|For a project on the implications of nuclear weapons with alternate effects regimes or low yields on global nuclear stability|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||University of Texas at Austin|
|For a project on emerging Anti-satellite (ASAT) threats to U.S. Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (C3) space assets|
|John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation||Technology for Global Security|
|X-grant for a project that addresses technical vulnerabilities of emerging nuclear command, control, and communications.|
|John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation||Nautilus of America|
|in support of a project to develop an international nuclear command, control and communications code of conduct.|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||Carnegie Endowment for International Peace|
|For a project on cyber threats to nuclear command and control systems|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||Center for a New American Security|
|For assessing the impact of disruptive technologies on strategic stability between the United States and Russia. Additional key words provided by funder: U.S.-Russia; nuclear issues; command and control; space|
|Carnegie Corporation of New York||Georgetown University|
|For investigating disruptive technologies; strategic vulnerability; and the future of deterrence. Additional key words provided by funder: proliferation; command and control; cruise missiles|
|Open Philanthropy||Penn State|
|Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $3,064,660 over four years to Penn State University to support research led by Professor Charles T. Anderson and colleagues on the production of food from unconventional sources following a global catastrophe, such as an all-out nuclear war, large asteroid strike, or supervolcano eruption. This funding will support research to identify plant-based resources that could grow in post-catastrophic climate conditions, develop strategies for emergency food production, analyze potential impacts of post-catastrophic foods on human health, and predict and develop household, community, and market responses to globally catastrophic disasters.|
|Open Philanthropy||Penn State|
|The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $109,063 to Penn State University to support Professor Charles Anderson’s research on production of food from unconventional sources in a situation of low global insolation. This funding will support a team of faculty and graduate, undergraduate, and postdoctoral students to develop a proposal outlining possible future research projects that might alleviate food shortages following a great power war or similar event leading to nuclear winter.|
For a discussion of impact multipliers, see Founders Pledge’s Guide to the Changing Landscape of Climate Philanthropy.
Thomas Kwa, “Effectiveness is a Conjunction of Multipliers,” Effective Altruism Forum, https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/GzmJ2uiTx4gYhpcQK/effectiveness-is-a-conjunction-of-multipliers.
GiveWell, “Against Malaria Foundation,” https://www.givewell.org/charities/amf.
And possibly great power conflict and international security more broadly
This phrase is from Jeffrey Lewis’s appearance on the 80,000 Hours podcast.
The societal consequences of e.g. a dirty bomb attack may be more larger than the direct deaths, although the point about relative scale of the problems stands. Thanks to Andrew Reddie for this point in a round of reviews.
Models of the climatic effects of nuclear war — especially those that predict severe and prolonged global cooling of a “nuclear winter” — are controversial and highly politicized. For a glimpse of the debate, see the exchange between Reisner et al. and Robock et al. in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and JGR Atmospheres (Robock et al. → Reisner et al. → Robock et al. → Reisner et al.).
All else, obviously, is not equal. Questions about the tractability of escalation management are crucial.
This is more difficult than just counting warheads. See David C. Logan, “The Nuclear Balance Is What States Make of It,” International Security 46, no. 4 (April 1, 2022): 172–215, https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00434.
This uncertainty is often not just about effect size, but also about the sign of the effect. In the words of one analysis of the uncertainty involved in understanding the catastrophic risks posed by nuclear war, “Benefit-cost analysis and other structured analytic methods applied to evaluate risk mitigation measures must acknowledge that we often do not even know whether many proposed approaches (e.g., reducing nuclear arsenals) will have a net positive or negative effect.” (Scouras, “Nuclear War as a Global Catastrophic Risk,” Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory) As discussed below, some approaches like experimental wargaming may help with these methodological challenges.
“Policy Roundtable: Nuclear First-Use and Presidential Authority,” Texas National Security Review, accessed December 8, 2022, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-nuclear-first-use-and-presidential-authority/.
The idea of an “inside view” model was first introduced by Kahneman in 1993: “An inside view forecast draws on knowledge of the specifics of the case, the details of the plan that exists, some ideas about likely obstacles and how they might be overcome. In an extreme form, the inside view involves an attempt to sketch a representative scenario that acaptures the essential elements of the history of the future. In contrast, the outside view is essentially statistical and comparative, and involves no attempt to divine future history at any level of detail.” Daniel Kahneman and Dan Lovallo, “Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive Perspective on Risk Taking,” Management Science 39, No. 1 (Jan., 1993): 25.
Thanks to both Jeffrey Lewis and James Acton for pointing to the importance of SME preferences.
For a discussion of this problem, see Karger et al., “Improving Judgments of Existential Risks.” Note that this is not a claim about “black swans” or the impossibility of predicting certain events. For a response to this separate issue, see Tetlock et al., “False Dichotomy Alert: Improving Subjective-Probability Estimates vs. Raising Awareness of Systemic Risk.”
Reddie, Andrew W. and Bethany Goldblum, “Evidence of the Unthinkable: Experimental Wargaming at the Nuclear Threshold.“ Journal of Peace Research, 2022; Lin-Greenberg et al., “Wargaming for International Relations Research,” 5.
And it is unclear how this experience translates to present challenges.
Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Simulating the Unthinkable: Gaming Future War in the 1950s and 1960s,” 165; and Connely et al., “General, I have Fought Just as Many Nuclear Wars as You Have.”
Johannes Ackva, Luisa Sandkühler, and Violet Buxton-Walsh, A guide to the changing landscape of high-impact climate philanthropy, Founders Pledge, 2021, https://assets.ctfassets.net/x5sq5djrgbwu/7eEpX4UcKNEy6LUDhf2B05/735518c277987ad5ad91f096b1fdc2a7/A_guide_to_the_changing_landscape_of_high-impact_climate_philanthropy.pdf.
Ackva et al., Guide to the Changing Landscape of High-Impact Climate Philanthropy, 66.
“Power-law distributions are the key characteristics of the highly improbable, unimaginably large phenomena that Nassim Taleb described in his bestselling book The Black Swan. If an outcome follows a power-law distribution, the overwhelming majority of the observations of that outcome are small, but a few are really, really huge.” (Bear F. Braumoeller, Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age, 104.) For a discussion of the severity of war as a power law distribution, see Only the Dead and Lars-Erik Cederman, T. Camber Warren, and Didier Sornette, “Testing Clausewitz: Nationalism, mass mobilization, and the severity of war,” International Organization 65, no. 4 (2011): 605-638.
See Founders Pledge’s recent report on hotlines and crisis communication systems, Call Me, Maybe? Hotlines and Global Catastrophic Risks.
Some people may view the very existence of nuclear weapons as immoral (e.g. because their existence perpetuates power imbalances), may see any “nuclear war” as fundamentally wrong, or may struggle to distinguish degrees of badness. This write-up assumes that readers agree that more death and suffering is worse than less death and suffering.
Thanks to James Acton for pointing to this, and for each of the points in this paragraph.
“In the United States, in the mid-1960s assistant secretary of defense for civil defense Steuart L. Pittman argued that civil defense should be considered a form of arms control. He suggested that cooperation with the Soviet Union on civil defense, beginning with technical exchanges and possibly building up to steps such as the mutual elimination of megaton-range weapons on humanitarian grounds, could not just make war less destructive if it occurred, but make it less likely in the first place.” Edward M. Geist, Armageddon Insurance: Civil Defense in the United States and Soviet Union, 1945-1991, 7.
Candid, Peace and Security Funding Index, accessed 25 October 2022. N.B., this may fail to capture some grants (especially outside the United States), but we believe it gives a relatively accurate overview of the field. For more information on how the data were collected, see Candid, “Data Sources,” candid.org, accessed 25 October 2022. Search terms used:
Additionally, we cross-referenced this with a search of Open Philanthropy’s grants database and information found on other funders’ websites, as well as other projects, such as ALLFED, that we know are working on right-of-boom interventions. The relevant spreadsheet may be found here.
This process involved reading through many grant descriptions, and it is possible that the analysis is mis-labeling some grants and missing others, including those that are not reported in the Peace and Security Funding Index. This is intended as a first attempt at estimating the magnitude of the imbalance.
Several developments in nuclear philanthropy make this a generally unstable estimate. For example, the Future of Life Institute has put out a request for proposals to study the consequences of nuclear war — a right-of-boom question — and the MacArthur Foundation has shrunk its nuclear grantmaking and will make its final grants in the field in 2023.
Call with James Acton and Ankit Panda, 10 January 2023.
Thanks to James Acton for this point.
Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States – 2020, https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/NCB/21-F-0591_2020_Report_of_the_Nuclear_Employement_Strategy_of_the_United_States.pdf.
(although STRATCOM’s 2023 research topics for its Academic Alliance do not seem to reflect this)
This analysis is notably limited to the United States, as a major nuclear power that is relatively transparent about nuclear weapons and strategy.
Thanks to James Acton for pointing to this.
“STRATCOM approaches [...] Right of Boom through a very particular lens. It's a warfighting lens. It's ‘how do we win the war?’ And, you know, as military officers, you think about things in terms of winning and losing wars, essentially, by overpowering your adversary. You're not necessarily trained in escalation and escalation management and the psychological and perceptual dimensions of all of this and the compellent/coercive dimension.” (James Acton, call with James Acton and Ankit Panda, 10 January 2023)
Call with James Acton and Ankit Panda, 10 January 2023. (This depends on which parts of the government one is considering, and specifically, how politically salient an issue is)
“We firmly believe that — on balance —funding advocacy, efforts to induce policy change and affect how societal resources are spent, provides the most compelling proposition for impact-oriented philanthropists.” (Ackva et al., Guide to the Changing Landscape).
In the words of one description of this framework, “neglectedness is only a good proxy if the area is being neglected for bad reasons by other actors.” (“Problem Framework, 80,000 Hours, https://80000hours.org/articles/problem-framework/#how-to-assess-how-neglected-a-problem-is)
This seems to be the view of the Catholic church and of many disarmament activists (CNA, “Pope Francis: Nuclear Weapons Are ‘Immoral,’” Catholic News Agency, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/251596/pope-francis-nuclear-weapons-are-immoral).
See, e.g. “Racism and Nuclear Weapons,” ICAN, accessed December 8, 2022, https://www.icanw.org/racism_and_nuclear_weapons.
Call with James Acton and Ankit Panda, 10 January 2023.
As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained when reviewing an earlier draft of this document, “This work has, in the past, been tainted by its popularity with a certain group of people. [Herman] Kahn's emphasis on escalation control and enthusiasm for civil defense were associated with a general framework that appeared to drive the arms race and neglect interventions that reduce risk. That is not to say that such work could not be done with real integrity.” (Google Docs comment by Jeffrey Lewis, 13 January 2023)
Call with James Acton and Ankit Panda, 10 January 2023. Similarly, Acton: “It's a problem that's attracted so little attention, especially since the end of the Cold War. It seems to me that there's real potential upside to spending time and effort thinking about those problems.”
Geist, Armageddon Insurance, 8.
Thanks to Jeffrey Lewis for pointing out that boards may present a bigger obstacle for many funders than public perception per se.
One popular joke in Cold War America: “What do you do when you see a flash? You put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.” (quoted in Geist, Armageddon Insurance, 11)
Thanks to James Acton for this point.
Thanks to Carl Robichaud for this point.
“...if nuclear weapons are used in a conflict—however limited that initial use—they [Chinese experts] believe that subsequent escalation would not be controlled, which restrains leaders from pursuing even limited use. [...] China’s skepticism about controlling nuclear escalation is reflected in its nuclear doctrine, and force structure, which is not optimized for conducting limited strikes.” Fiona Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security 44, no. 2 (2019): 64.
“[I]n a crisis or conflict with China, the United States might overestimate the likelihood that China would use nuclear weapons and underestimate the scale of a Chinese retaliatory nuclear strike. Paradoxically, then, Chinese views about nuclear escalation may be suboptimal from the perspective of China’s ability to deter either nuclear attacks or conventional attacks on its nuclear arsenal by the United States and create greater instability during a crisis.” Ibid.
For comparing the relative expected impact of different interventions, this may be best represented as a distribution, rather than a point estimate.
Nice piece and great visualization! It's an interesting framework to classify left and right of boom. Another way is prevention, response, and resilience. I would argue that much of the work on the impacts of nuclear war is motivated by prevention, so if you look at how much money has been spent on each of response and resilience, it might be 100 times lower than prevention. As you say, just because response and resilience are neglected does not prove that if they are highly cost-effective. So then I think actual cost-effectiveness models are useful, such as this, this, and this.
I agree with you that:
However, I would argue assessing neglectedness based on past spending underestimates the expected neglectedness (see my comment here). Resources could go towards response and resilience after the catastrophe, which is not the case for prevention.
Thanks, David! I really appreciate this comment. One reason I find this left/right framework more intuitive than "prevention, response, and resilience" is that there are right-of-boom interventions that I would classify as "prevention." For example, I think of escalation management after limited first use as "preventing" the largest nuclear wars (especially if we think such a war poses qualitatively different problems).
Your cost-effectiveness models are very helpful, and I plan to cite them in the bigger project :)
I’m very much a layman to the field of nuclear risk but I found this piece extremely engaging and interesting! I definitely think applying the principles of robust diversification to important issues is a key way for EAs to bring value, and would love to see it applied to other cause areas.
Thank you, James :)
Great work! In addition to providing a useful path forward for future work in this field, this shows the usefulness of applying EA frameworks to policy problems like nuclear risk management.
Of the eight explanations you list, I worry most about number 5. You write that "For example, a funder might believe that nuclear war, once begun, is almost certain to escalate to all-out war". I don't think you have to believe that escalation is almost certain, but instead just that the amount of escalation is unaffectable by philanthropists. This is at least plausible to me given that we know decision-makers struggle to control escalation once a war has started. I also think there are way fewer leverage points once a war has started as decision-making becomes more centralized, politicized, and stakesier.
That said, of course I think this is a useful direction to explore. I'll be interested to see if you find funding opportunities other than research on effects of war and nuclear winter!
Thanks for the kind comment, Stephen! You're right I phrased that wrong -- it is about tractability, not probability. I agree with you that the tractability of escalation control is probably the biggest issue here, but I also think we should expect low-hanging fruit given the relative neglectedness. There are a couple of concrete projects that I am/would be be excited about:
Quite happy to see this on the forum!
Great analysis, Christian!
You considered actual (past) spending to assess neglectedness, as is often done, but should the focus be on expected future spending?
For the left-of-boom spending, nothing is changed, because by definition there is no spending of this kind after the start of a nuclear war.
However, expected right-of-boom spending is dominated by the spending in the event of a nuclear war. For example, assuming a probability of 0.1 % of full scale nuclear war in 2023, and a right-of-boom spending of 1 T$ if it materialises, the expected right-of-boom spending would be 1 G$. This is 1.95 and 59.8 times your estimates for the left-of-boom and right-of-boom spending between 2012 and 2022. So there is a sense in which left-of-boom spending is more neglected.
I can see how right-of-boom spending may be more effective before nuclear war. Coming up with good interventions in little time may be harder, since some thinking may not be parallelizable. On the other hand, right-of-boom spending after the start of the nuclear war might be more effective due to more information being available (e.g. about the countries involved, and their motives for starting the war). I do not know what is the overall multiplier accounting for all of this, and I am not confident it favours right-of-boom spending at the current margin.
I suppose the same argument applies to other causes. For example, for global warming, it is true interventions targetting warming higher than 3 ºC are neglected if we look at past spending. However, this underestimates the respective expected future spending. Resources would start flowing towards such interventions if our best guess for warming by 2100 moved upwards. Does Founders Pledge's robust diversification approach account for this?
In a previous blog post I made an argument on synergies with other activities. ALLFED works on post nuclear war food crisis, but probably some of the solutions developed for that could be used to deal with harsh agricultural conditions in poor countries.
A second issue is involving the military of democratic countries in this kind of preparadness efforts.