When The World Didn’t End

15th September 2017

Simon Beard has a feature in the upcoming October 2017 edition of the BBC History Magazine on historical cases in which humanity narrowly avoided a global catastrophe, mainly due to nuclear war.

He also wrote a blog post for our parent organisation, CRAASH – Less Hollywood, More Car Crash: Putting the USA vs. DPRK nuclear stand-off into historical perspective.

“The more I studied these incidents, the more I concluded that we respond to them in the wrong ways. There is a tendency to see each and every case as a terrible mistake, a one-off freak accident that must never be allowed to happen again. However, when you see so many different incidents lined up side by side you realise that this just true. Nuclear near misses are not unconnected moments of madness, they are a systemic feature of our ability to do such massive damage in such a short period of time.”

“So far 4 different attempts have been made to quantify just how low this probability might be. In 2008 Martin Hellman estimated that the annual probability of a ‘Cuban Missile Type Crisis’ producing a nuclear war was 0.02% to 0.5%. Then, in 2013, Anthony Barrett and colleagues at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute estimated the annual probability of a nuclear war between the USA and Russia as being somewhere between 0.001% and 7%. Carl Lundgren has estimated that over the past 66 years we have faced an annual probability of nuclear war that was greater than 1% per year. Finally, in 2015, Dennis and Armstrong surveyed expert opinion to estimate that there is an approximately 0.05% chance per year of a nuclear war that had the potential to cause human extinction. There is a lot of variation and uncertainty here, but given the different approaches and methodologies being used, we can say with some confidence that the probability of a nuclear war starting is likely greater than 0.01% per year, and that it could be considerably higher.

What does this mean? Well let’s assume that if there was an international nuclear war, your chances of being killed would be around 10%. If the annual probability of such a war is 0.01%, this gives you a 1 in 10,000 risk of dying in a nuclear war each year, or a 1 in 125 risk of being killed this way over the course of an 80-year lifespan. That is about as high as your risk of dying in a motoring accident (and incidentally means that, even in a country like the USA, people are more likely to be killed by a nuclear warhead than a firearm).

So, the next time you read about rising tensions between two nuclear armed states, remember that this may be an international car crash in more ways than one and you should probably try to worry about things escalating about as much as you would if you saw somebody driving dangerously. Sadly, such incidents aren’t one off tragedies caused by the unique personalities of those involved, they are a regular fact of life and deserve sustained effort to prevent and avoid. As long as states keep hold of their nuclear weapons, this is how things are likely to remain.”