Category Archives: War

Nuclear winter and human extinction: Q&A with Luke Oman

In Reasons and Persons, philosopher Derek Parfit wrote:

I believe that if we destroy mankind, as we now can, this outcome will be much worse than most people think. Compare three outcomes:

1. Peace

2. A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.

3. A nuclear war that kills 100%

2 would be worse than 1, and 3 would be worse than 2. Which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is between 1 and 2. I believe that the difference between 2 and 3 is very much greater… If we do not destroy mankind, these thousand years may be only a tiny fraction of the whole of civilized human history.

The ethical questions raised by the example have been much discussed, but almost nothing has been written on the empirical question: given nuclear war, how likely is scenario 3?

The most obvious path from nuclear war to human extinction is nuclear winter: past posts on Overcoming Bias have bemoaned neglect of nuclear winter, and high-lighted recent research. Particularly important is a 2007 paper by Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy Stenchikov:  “Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences.” Their model shows severe falls in temperature and insolation that would devastate agriculture and humanity’s food supply, with the potential for billions of deaths from famine in addition to the direct damage.

So I asked Luke Oman for his estimate of the risk that nuclear winter would cause human extinction, in addition to its other terrible effects. He gave the following estimate:

The probability I would estimate for the global human population of zero resulting from the 150 Tg of black carbon scenario in our 2007 paper would be in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.

I tried to base this estimate on the closest rapid climate change impact analog that I know of, the Toba supervolcanic eruption approximately 70,000 years ago.  There is some suggestion that around the time of Toba there was a population bottleneck in which the global population was severely reduced.  Climate anomalies could be similar in magnitude and duration.  Biggest population impacts would likely be Northern Hemisphere interior continental regions with relatively smaller impacts possible over Southern Hemisphere island nations like New Zealand.

Luke also graciously gave a short Q & A to clarify his reasoning:

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Prefer Peace

As fiction authors know, compelling stories need conflict; readers love to root for good guys against bad guys.  As college professors know, students perk up when academic topics are posed as conflicts.  Sophomores love to hear each subject posed as a conflict between several possible isms, especially a long bitter conflict.  To them, intellectual maturity consists largely of looking over a long menu and ordering one from column A, one from column B, and so on.  But while I'd like to be a popular teacher, I'd rather be honest, and most subjects are just not well described as a conflict of isms. 

When asked to evaluate a proposed economic policy, most students identify some winners and losers, and then favor or oppose the policy based on which group they like best.  It takes a long time for students to learn to think in terms of economic efficiency, weighing the costs and benefits for all effected parties, and even then students usually find an even-handed approach much less inspiring.  Some econ profs engage students by inviting them to join the few knowing insiders against the ignorant multitudes outside, but even that rings wrong to me.

Yesterday I discussed the tension between the ideals we often verbalize and the goals our usual choices seem designed to achieve.  I tried to argue for compromise, for seeking "variations on common ideals which one can more easily admit serve ordinary non-ideal ends."  But, most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war.  Generation after generation, the [added: some] old tell the young to seek internal peace; no internal side has the strength to win a clean victory, so all out war risks all out destruction.  But the young will not hear.

It seems that one of humanity's strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict.  In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of  conflicts.  We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers.  But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.

Added: Byran Caplan asks:

What makes Robin think that "every side can expect to get more" from compromise than conflict?  Doesn't anyone have a comparative advantage in conflict?  And all it takes to get a conflict is one willing combatant, no?

Deals are not always enforceable, admitting interest in a deal might send the wrong signal, and one may need to threaten conflict to get the best deal.  Even so, there is some deal that beats each conflict for each party.

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Total Tech Wars

Eliezer Thursday:

Suppose … the first state to develop working researchers-on-a-chip, only has a one-day lead time. …  If there’s already full-scale nanotechnology around when this happens … in an hour … the ems may be able to upgrade themselves to a hundred thousand times human speed, … and in another hour, …  get the factor up to a million times human speed, and start working on intelligence enhancement. … One could, of course, voluntarily publish the improved-upload protocols to the world, and give everyone else a chance to join in.  But you’d have to trust that not a single one of your partners were holding back a trick that lets them run uploads at ten times your own maximum speed.

Carl Shulman Saturday and Monday:

I very much doubt that any U.S. or Chinese President who understood the issues would fail to nationalize a for-profit firm under those circumstances. … It’s also how a bunch of social democrats, or libertarians, or utilitarians, might run a project, knowing that a very likely alternative is the crack of a future dawn and burning the cosmic commons, with a lot of inequality in access to the future, and perhaps worse. Any state with a lead on bot development that can ensure the bot population is made up of nationalists or ideologues (who could monitor each other) could disarm the world’s dictatorships, solve collective action problems … [For] biological humans [to] retain their wealth as capital-holders in his scenario, ems must be obedient and controllable enough … But if such control is feasible, then a controlled em population being used to aggressively create a global singleton is also feasible.

Every new technology brings social disruption. While new techs (broadly conceived) tend to increase the total pie, some folks gain more than others, and some even lose overall.  The tech’s inventors may gain intellectual property, it may fit better with some forms of capital than others, and those who first foresee its implications may profit from compatible investments.  So any new tech can be framed as a conflict, between opponents in a race or war.

Every conflict can be framed as a total war. If you believe the other side is totally committed to total victory, that surrender is unacceptable, and that all interactions are zero-sum, you may conclude your side must never cooperate with them, nor tolerate much internal dissent or luxury.  All resources must be devoted to growing more resources and to fighting them in every possible way.

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US Help Red China Revolt?

During WWII, the US helped Chinese Nationalists resist the Japanese.  Soon after the war, Communist rebels took over China.  Did the US assist or resist communists taking over China?  Wikipedia seems to disagree with my colleague Gordon Tullock.  Wikipedia says:

The Soviet Union provided limited aid to the Communists, and the United States assisted the Nationalists with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military supplies and equipment (now surplus [Communist] munitions), as well as the airlifting of many Nationalist troops from central China to Manchuria.

Wikipedia elaborates:

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Guiltless Victims

When we are reminded of when others have victimized us, we are less able to see that we victimize others:

Wohl and Branscombe randomly divided [US] volunteers into groups. One group was reminded of the terrorist attacks, while another was told about Nazi atrocities in Poland during World War II. A third group was reminded of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. … Volunteers reminded about the Sept. 11 attacks were less likely to perceive the distress the [Iraq] war has caused many Iraqis, and less likely to feel collective responsibility, compared with volunteers told about the tragedy in Poland. … it makes no difference whether you remind them about the Sept. 11 attacks or about Pearl Harbor. …

The psychologists re-ran the experiment with Canadian volunteers. Two groups heard reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks and Pearl Harbor, while a third heard about a deadly terrorist attack in Sri Lanka.  None of these tragedies affected Canadians personally. Wohl and Branscombe found no differences among the groups in whether they felt distress on behalf of Iraqis, or a sense of collective guilt.  … The psychologists similarly found that Jewish volunteers in North America feel reduced guilt and responsibility for Israeli actions that cause suffering among Palestinians when they are first reminded about the Holocaust, compared with when they are reminded about the genocide in Cambodia.

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Schelling and the Nuclear Taboo

Thomas Schelling’s Nobel Lecture is pretty similar to the point made by Eliezer the other day.  Here’s the first couple of paragraphs.

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Corporate Assassins

Most people want to succeed, but most also have moral qualms about doing whatever it takes.  People with unusually strong ambitions or weak qualms, however, should be willing to do much more, even murder.  And at the top of each walk of life we expect to find a disproportionate fraction not only of high ability folks, but also of high ambition and low qualm folks. 

We thus naturally worry about finding the darkest forms of foul play at the top.  Literature is full of plausible-seeming scenarios where by leaders in government, business, and even the arts commit the most terrible crimes to get ahead.  But we tend to believe these stories more about leaders long ago or far away, and less about leaders in admirable walks of life, like religion, academia, or the arts.  Is this just wishful thinking, or is there more to it?

An interesting concrete example is corporate assassins.  We hear of assassination of leaders in crime or politics, at least far away, but less often in business.  Given how little it seems to cost to have someone killed, why don’t more corporations have their competitors’ leaders knocked off? 

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Rah My Country

Today is the revered USA “Approval to Print a Declaration of Independence Day“:

The Declaration of Independence was not signed [July 4] by the 56 persons whose signatures would eventually adorn it.  Perhaps no one signed it that day. ….  What Congress actually did that day was agree to print and publish the Declaration authorized two days earlier. …  What was voted on July 2 was, however, really decided on July 1.  But on June 28, Congress considered Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, so was the die then cast?  Or was it cast on June 10, when Congress voted that “a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration”?  The Declaration was first actually declared — read aloud to a crowd (at the State House, now Independence Hall) — on July 8.

I prefer this classic Onion:

As a true patriot, I would gladly die in battle defending my homeland. I love my country more than my own life. But I would also be more than willing to give my last breath in the name of, say, Mexico, Panama, Japan, or the Czech Republic. The most honorable thing a man can do is lay down his life for his country. Or another country. The important thing is that it’s a country.

Here in Northern Virginia there are lots of “Support Our Troops” signs and bumper stickers.  I now have this bumper sticker on my car:

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Bounty Slander

A Post article today, Bounties a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda:

Jaber Elbaneh is one of the world’s most-wanted terrorism suspects. In 2003, the U.S. government indicted him, posted a $5 million reward for his capture and distributed posters bearing photos of him around the globe.  None of it worked. Elbaneh remains at large, as wanted as ever. …

Since 1984, the program has handed out $77 million to more than 50 tipsters, according to the State Department.  … In 2004, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) visited Pakistan to assess why Rewards for Justice had generated so little information regarding al-Qaeda’s leadership. He discovered that the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had effectively shut down the program. There was no radio or television advertising. …

In 2004, Congress passed a law authorizing the State Department to post rewards as high as $50 million apiece — a provision with bin Laden in mind. Last fall, Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) went further, introducing a bill that would raise the cap to $500 million. The State Department has declined to boost the reward for bin Laden, arguing that more money was unlikely to do any good and would only add to his notoriety.

Let’s see, billions spent via ordinary means, and millions offered in bounties, and it is the bounties they blame for Al-Qaeda’s notoriety and elusive leaders?  The billions are spent and gone, while the millions in bounties we only lose when they actually work.  How does this suggest we should prefer ordinary means to bounties?  Perhaps this Post comment explains the real objection:

This "price in his head", millions in rewards business has had a stench to it all along. It’s evidence of our own raw materialism and reinforces the idea it’s our enemies who occupy the moral high ground.

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When None Dare Urge Restraint

Followup toUncritical Supercriticality

One morning, I got out of bed, turned on my computer, and my Netscape email client automatically downloaded that day’s news pane.  On that particular day, the news was that two hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center.

These were my first three thoughts, in order:

I guess I really am living in the Future.
Thank goodness it wasn’t nuclear.

    and then
The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event.

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