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AMA: Joan Rohlfing, President and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative

My bad, the first paragraph should have my thesis statement right? That and the remaining paragraphs are the supporting arguments. Good luck. The HTML embedding is not working for links. Their is probably a breakdown somewhere but this site needs a better UI.

My point was abstract threats are not motivating. People are terrified of war. But we have been beaten down and have no political agency. For instance, your comment sucks Optimist. You got the moderator mad. Yeah I hope so. People want this problem solved myself included, but the academics are worried about funding and impact factors.

Threads and the day after were the reason the stockpile was reduced. Diplomats had no impact on it until the public was motivated.

Nuclear war is unlikely to cause human extinction

Your perspective is refreshing. I agree that nuclear winter is overblown. Nonetheless achieving the same countervalue strategy is possible without directly attacking cities. The EMP commission reported that up to 90% of the US population would die within a year after an EMP attack with nuclear weapons. The weapons would not create smoke and an EMP would force the country to devote resources to keeping people alive. In other words an EMP attack keeps demand high by not killing anyone but instantly drops the supply which eventually kills almost everyone.

North Korea has created weapons and the missiles to carry them. However, they have not created the technology necessary for a warhead to re-enter the atmosphere and they have not created necessary guidance systems to accurately hit targets. They are also developing a constellation of satellites that in theory could hold nuclear weapons that are detonated when they are above the targeted countries.

I think this asymmetric strategy is likely to be used by the US and Russia too. Even after a successful counterforce first strike enough warheads would survive to achieve countervalue objectives without risking a nuclear winter. In a nuclear war where cities are targeted the initial SLBM EMPs would still kill more people than the direct attacks on cities. So why risk a nuclear winter even if it is a remote possibility?

Effective altruism is about investing my income to do the greatest good. Should I max out my 401k now to give away more money in the future or invest now in a wood gasifier, windmill, biogas generator, solar power system and micro-hydro in order to avoid having to plough after a possible devastating EMP attack?

I agree that nuclear winter is unlikely because an attacker has better options than firestorming cities.

What is the likelihood that civilizational collapse would directly lead to human extinction (within decades)?

This was a lot to unpack but I agree that it would be extremely difficult for the human race to go extinct. Although 99.9% of all species have gone extinct. It is our enormous numbers and ability to adapt and specialize in different ecological niches using our tools instead of our biology that makes us hard to kill. I keep coming back to this forum because I like to see the academic perspective on nuclear conflict. Although there is still a lot of misinformation on surviving a nuclear war.

In my experience most people avoid thinking about nuclear conflict and it is not something I can bring up in casual conversation. Even the people who identify as preppers fall into nuclear nihilism and say they would want to be cindered in a flash of light rather than go through a nuclear winter.

Most preppers do not build bunkers and besides bunkers are unnecessary. Most preppers have a small amount of extra supplies for a brief interruption of services. They are not planning on bushcrafting to survive or single handedly rebuilding civilization. The research you linked on preppers complains that preppers are often thought as crazies like on the TV show doomsday preppers but still studies that fringe.

Nonetheless, I think most preppers would survive a nuclear war. In fact I believe a family can guarantee their survival in a nuclear war for under $5k. That is cheap insurance against a real risk that can be spread out over several years.

I loved the book, The Knowledge, and have read it a few times. I am jealous if you got the chance to pick the brain of Lewis Dartnell. I agree with his premise that the goal should be to restore civilization as fast as possible if it should collapse. A good primer was needed even if it is missing hydraulics and electronics.

But I think in order to rebuild we first have to show that people can survive something like a nuclear war. A lot of great material on surviving a nuclear war comes from the Cold War era. At the time the governments were afraid that if they instructed people directly on how to survive a nuclear war that they would be signaling to them that they intended to start one. They didn’t want people to think it was inevitable even if statistically it is inevitable. Besides people would cut their funding if they became too afraid. This is how unofficial but official information was created like protect and survive in the UK and Nuclear War Survival Skill in the US.

In Nuclear War Survival Skills they tested their shelters against blast effects and verified a family could build a covered foxhole in 48 hours. Before the nuclear test ban treaty shelters were tested against real nuclear weapons. Most buried structures that can support the weight of earth above them can survive an airburst. We also know the UK did practice nuclear wargames to train officials to make the best possible decisions in the worst possible scenarios. They included members of the BBC in their wargames and unsurprisingly created the dystopian science fiction film Threads which has been called the most realistic depiction of nuclear war.

If a covered foxhole as described on page 123 here a few buckets of food, and electronics wrapped in aluminum foil inside a metal trashcan (to protect against an EMP), can defeat an all out nuclear attack then humanity will survive and rebuild. MAD will be remembered as the greatest waste in the history of the human race of money, time and lost potential.

I am still waiting for an analysis comparing the Brian Toon article on nuclear winter and the Los Alamos nuclear winter paper that predicts much smaller cooling effects.

ALLFED 2020 Highlights

I will say it again this program needs to be fully funded. But I do wonder if the solution to this is genetic engineering.

Corn and potatoes are well adapted to the areas people live. Both are incredibly calorie dense with a high number of calories per acre. All GMO foods in existence now are further optimized to grow for the present sunlight and UV conditions.

What research has been done on creating GMO foods that are optimized to grow in low levels of sunlight and high levels of UV?

Ideally there would exist a variety of nuclear winter crops that are optimized to grow in those conditions. But there might also be no surviving seeds that are optimized for a normal environment.

It should be possible to breed out or splice in kill switch genes that slowly disables nuclear winter genes after a few harvests. That way the food is optimized to grow every year as the environment changes. Eventually deleting their nuclear winter genes or allowing their post-winter genes to dominate.

What I want to know is with genetic engineering is it possible to preprogram our food to adapt to the changing conditions from the beginning to the end? Can we bake everything into the potato? Is there a limit to how much we can optimize low light level, UV and drought resistant crops?

If agriculture science has no incentive to develop these crops now and it would be impossible to develop them after a nuclear war then should the government step in to fund the science?

I think we need more dystopian movies to get nuclear winter taken as seriously as other existential threats.


I would also argue that nuclear winter lead to the late Bronze Age collapse and collapsed civilization again in 536. Maybe we can avoid collapse next time.

Updated estimates of the severity of a nuclear war

Thank you for updating your research. I understand that only a handful of scientists are working on the nuclear winter problem. It seems like this is an area where effective altruism and yourself can make a major difference. I do have a few questions about nuclear winter since you mentioned looking into that subject in greater detail for future publications.

  1. If cities burn without creating a firestorm to lift black carbon into the stratosphere then would a nuclear winter persist for years or would it quickly rain out?

  2. Smoke is the result of incomplete combustion. A firestorm generates enormous temperatures due to the blast furnace effect heating fuels to temperatures between 1,400F and 2,000F. Carbon, like in diamonds, burns at 1,292F to create CO2. A smokeless incinerator is able to burn plastics without releasing black smoke and only release CO2 and water vapor. Do the sources you reference already account for the combustion of pure black carbon in a high temperature firestorm?

  3. A few pyrocumulonimbus clouds have been studied. They appear to be mostly water vapor. If a firestorm releases a large amount of water vapor that condenses into ice as it rises then would the black carbon act as condensation nuclei? Would an ice coating change the color and stop the self-heating and rising necessary to reach the stratosphere? If an ice coated black carbon particle does reach the stratosphere then how does that impact the longevity of a nuclear winter?

  4. If the sources are ambiguous then is this something that smaller scale table top experiments or additional observations can factually determine?

[Link] Thiel on GCRs

Even if I nailed the macro trends prediction, the Fed lowered interest rates, I cannot predict presidential tweets. Realistically, starting from the bottom you want to invest in low cost index funds.

VCs have a lot of capital to invest and only a few plays can make up for all their losses and then some. Most people cannot beat the market. I could spend all my time trying to squeeze out a few extra percent. However, I still would not know if I am a good investor with smart money or a dumb one who got lucky.

I can compound my investments historically around 10% per year. Including inflation puts the real dollar return at 8% per year. If I want more growth I really need to earn a higher salary. With a tighter job market, from lower interest rates and lower levels of natural unemployment, means switching jobs creates double digit raises. The trend in business is wage compression where people with more experience who continue to work for the same employer are only given inflation wage adjustments but never any real wage growth.


People should invest in index funds since they require no thought and do better than most managed investments. But this also frees up time to change careers and grow your income which is often easier to do, has a better return, and is under their direct control.

The excess income should go into index funds until someone can choose if they want to continue to work.

Index altruism might be a better strategy for most people too. If someone can identify a more altruistic charity that does more good then the efficient market hypothesis should quickly level the playing field. Maybe there is more smart money in investing that becomes dumb money when giving it away?

"Why Nations Fail" and the long-termist view of global poverty

I can see how an extractive economy lowers the cost of labor. High labor costs and excess capital are the prerequisites for investing in labor saving technology.

It is not difficult for a bad government to copy existing technology that is more efficient. I believe the key difference between Africa and Asia is the green revolution of the 60s and 70s. The arguments are outlined here:


As China increased their yields they were able to move labor from subsistence farming into industrial production. Eventually the same revolution will happen in Africa. Inclusive economies are necessary for continued innovation. Applying several hundred years worth of productivity gains into a few decades may even given the illusion that fantastic economic growth is possible without inclusion. We will see if Africa becomes more inclusive as their productivity and growth begin to accelerate. I also feel personally attacked by the spot on long termist description.

How many people would be killed as a direct result of a US-Russia nuclear exchange?


the cost $3340 should be multiplied by 0.003 and 72 years to make a nuclear winter lifetime hedge comparison to malaria. That is $721. This is about 10 years worth of wheat grain. It is still on par with malaria prevention but also looks better if it hedges against multiple existential risks.

How many people would be killed as a direct result of a US-Russia nuclear exchange?

The main roadblock to additional funding into alternate foods research is likely the same nuclear fatalism that also cuts into FEMA's budget. There is some validity to their arguments that this creates more countervalue targets. This is why decentralization, redundancy and resiliency is important. This same set of properties is what motivated the creation of the internet. A mixture of agricultural science, stored foods, alternate foods, fire prevention, arms treaties, and nuclear non-proliferation should all be pursued.

Any advances in those areas, especially agricultural science like dwarf wheat, would still save many lives. Even if there is not a nuclear winter and farming is possible people will not be able to garden as if their lives depended on it. A global year long power outage is expected to kill 90% of the population even with farming as an option. I think of stored food as buying people the time to adapt and survive. It also hedges against multiple existential risk scenarios and allows people to focus on rebuilding what they can before they become generationally trapped into subsistence farming. An electrical engineer turning into a farmer to survive is a waste of talent when they could be working in their specialty. I have read that malaria is considered to be an example of a good effective altruist investment. Their ROI for a single life is $3,340 according to this article:


that $3,340 is guaranteed to save a life. Stored food is also guaranteed to save a life should the worst happen. Your research shows that the accepted and expected likelihood of a nuclear war is 0.3% per year. Multiplying our good ROI example of $3,340/life by our expected probability 0.3%per year gives us $1002. That is enough to buy 10 years worth of flour for one person and it is more than enough whole wheat to feed multiple people through a nuclear winter (which I think is overblown but cannot prove it yet). This looks like an even better investment when spread out over 70 years. Alternate foods should also be explored and it may be more cost effective but the stored food is guaranteed. I do not understand why someone would be against that. The high costs to save everyone might even incentivize countries to further reduce their stockpiles if the citizens in those countries demand an adequate amount of hedging against their use.

While nuclear winter gets much of the existential risk attention an easy way to reduce that risk is to reduce fallout. This means eliminating high yield groundbursts by removing the outdated hardened targets like silos and cold war government bunkers. The fallout suppresses firefighters and civilians from putting out secondary fires because they would be instructed to remain indoors for weeks or months. Civilian deaths due to fallout would likely escalate the conflict into a full scale exchange. It would also be in an attacker's best interest to allow civilians to put out fires in order to avoid a nuclear winter.

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