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It’s time for a new atomic altruism

Philanthropies are pulling back from programs meant to address the risk of nuclear war — at precisely the wrong moment.

Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia
Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020, in Moscow.
Getty Images

There is a looming nuclear crisis, and chances are you’ve never heard of it. It is not just about the war in Ukraine, Putin’s and his lackeys’ loose talk around using nuclear weapons, or Russia’s proclaimed “suspension” of the New START arms control treaty. It is not just about the apparent ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party to quadruple its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads and to pursue unusual nuclear delivery systems. And it is not just about the rapid advances in artificial intelligence and their myriad applications in the militaries of nuclear-armed states. This nuclear crisis is about money.

This year, the MacArthur Foundation, the single biggest philanthropic funder of nuclear risk reduction, is making its final grant distributions before fully withdrawing from the field. Academics, activists, and think tank analysts already relied on a meager $47 million a year. One analysis estimated that MacArthur accounted for about $15 million of that on average between 2014 and 2020, suggesting that total funding may shrink to around $32 million now (the exact numbers are highly uncertain, given reporting lags and database issues). For comparison, the budget of Christopher Nolan’s new Oppenheimer movie is over $100 million. In other words, filmmakers spent three times more money on a single movie about nuclear war than philanthropists are spending on preventing nuclear war.

A field that was already deeply neglected compared to other global risks is now faltering, but with this crisis also comes an opportunity. Even modest amounts of money — by the standards of philanthropists, who spend billions, not millions, pushing their preferred policies every year — can reshape the field for the better, rebalancing lopsided philanthropic portfolios, rigorously prioritizing the most extreme risks, and creating a pipeline for a new generation of experts on nuclear war. To protect us all from the ever-present threat of nuclear war, we need a new atomic altruism.

Pulling back at the worst time

The funding shortfall is coming at the dawn of what some analysts are calling a dangerous “new nuclear age.” As one of us wrote in a new Founders Pledge report on catastrophic nuclear risks released last month, China’s pursuit of a massively larger arsenal undermines decades of nuclear strategy, creating a new “three-body problem” in nuclear deterrence and leading one senior US strategist to admit, “I’m not sure what strategic stability looks like in a three-party world.”

Advances in artificial intelligence are also poised to make strategic stability increasingly complex. Will AI-powered mass detection make the battlefield more transparent? If so, will this be more of a boon to early warning and arms control verification or to pre-emptive targeting of nuclear forces? Will AI instead deepen the fog of war or manipulate the systems, processes, and people that control nuclear decision-making with new kinds of electronic warfare, cyber weapons, and influence campaigns? Will the most capable large AI systems themselves come to pose threats as extreme as nuclear war? Even if people ultimately retain control of the world’s most powerful AI systems, applications such as mass manipulation, mass precision targeting, and advanced bioweapons could threaten billions.

The stakes of mismanaging this new nuclear age are immense, and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki pale in comparison to what could happen if the Great Powers unleashed their full arsenals. While down from a peak of roughly 60,000 nuclear weapons, today’s arsenals, totaling roughly 12,000, feature weapons that are typically 5 to 40 times as powerful as those dropped on Japan. The blast, heat, radiation, and wildfires generated by a nuclear exchange of thousands of nuclear weapons could cause death at the scale of all of World War II in just a few days. In the following months and years, billions more could be threatened by the longer-term effects of radioactive fallout, loss of power, food, and critical services from electro-magnetic pulse effects, the destruction of supply chains and infrastructure, and potentially even mass crop failure from nuclear winter. Even if civilization weren’t to collapse everywhere, the political ramifications of such a war would be massive: reshaping the global distribution of power, with no guarantee that democracies survive as the most competitive forms of government.

With this catastrophic threat, the field of nuclear security studies needs more support, and not just with funding. For one, the field suffers from a lack of both epistemic and demographic diversity. Only a small handful of experts are taking the boom (sorry) in AI capabilities seriously, and there is no large-scale project (outside some efforts in government and the national laboratories) to revise deterrence theory for the new US-Russia-China three-body world. Perhaps worst of all, only a tiny fraction of philanthropic funding goes to one of the most important problems in the field: how to keep nuclear war from escalating after the first bomb has gone off. The problem of further escalation is the fine dividing line between a horrific but local humanitarian disaster and a civilization-threatening conflagration, yet this issue is often dismissed as an outdated Cold War concern. As one of the experts interviewed for the Founders Pledge report put it, “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.” Unfortunately, the times are taking us there now.

The role of philanthropies

We can do something about these problems. By funding public service fellowships on emerging security challenges, for example, philanthropists can help build new talent pipelines that will yield benefits for decades to come. Similarly, funders can emulate one of the biggest philanthropic success stories in recent years, the network of research projects that ultimately led to the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and tackled the problem of “loose nukes” in the then-disintegrating Soviet Union. To do this, funders like the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation seeded multiple research projects across think tanks and universities, ultimately leveraging billions of dollars in government funding. The same highly leveraged policy advocacy approach could help put today’s smartest minds on the challenges of the nuclear three-body problem.

Philanthropy can play a pivotal role in shaping society’s response to the new nuclear age. Philanthropists can devote resources to policy interventions intended to bear fruit beyond the current election cycle and to protect people regardless of what side of an international border they’re on. Without careful philanthropy, policy influence outside government becomes a contest between defense industry lobbying and under-informed activism.

As James Scouras, a senior expert on the risk of nuclear war at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory recently wrote in response to the Founders Pledge report, philanthropy can help challenge “unimaginative, even wrongheaded and dangerous, government policies.” Nuclear risk, he writes, is “far too important to leave to the generals.” While some of the most thoughtful people on the subject of nuclear risk have worked in government since the days of J. Robert Oppenheimer, civil society and philanthropists make a huge difference by bringing independent perspectives and crucial considerations to policymakers’ attention before crises unfold. All philanthropists need to do is spend a little more money on our survival than is spent on movies about it.

Christian Ruhl is a senior researcher at Founders Pledge and manages the Global Catastrophic Risks Fund. (Disclosure: Future Perfect received a grant from Founder’s Pledge in 2023 for reporting on bioweapons.)

Matthew Gentzel co-leads Longview Philanthropy’s Nuclear Weapons Policy Program.

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