Local Actions, Global Consequences

Given recent advances in science and technology, the state of the earth is currently teetering on the brink of widespread catastrophe. Yet, it may not even take a global nuclear war to spawn global devastation. As both Robock and Toon’s “Local Nuclear War” and the 1954 short film “The House in the Middle” emphasize, it is perhaps the regional actions that are set to be the most transformative of our global security. A local nuclear war between India and Pakistan, for example, would not only kill more than 20 million civilians in the 2 countries, but would induce climatic responses that would last for at least 10 years. As smoke from the explosion remains suspended in the stratosphere, the particles absorb so much sunlight that surface temperatures are cooled and the ozone layer depleted. Thus, a regionally produced smoke local to two countries has now induced a global climatic response that would lead to widespread famines, increased ultraviolet radiation, and shortened agricultural growing seasons.

Meanwhile, the heat effects of atomic exposure on American homes is largely dictated by the extent of local housekeeping. Two houses identical in structure and exterior condition had drastically different reactions to thermal heat wave produced in an atomic blast due to different internal housekeeping, as the house with the cluttered room burst into flames while the tidied house remained aloft. Varied external housekeeping conditions also produced varied consequences, as both a littered, unpainted house and a dry and rotten house burst into flames after exposure to thermal heat, while a house in good clean condition with a light coat of paint only had slight charring of the painted outer surface. Thus, actions as local as housekeeping can sum to larger global consequences.

Yet, humans regularly fail to have the cognitive capacity to foresee the long-term and global effects of their focal actions. When they litter or fail to paint their homes, rarely do they think that the cost of their laziness is their individual, communal, and global security in the event of an atomic explosion. Similarly, policy makers tend to put the interest of national security at the forefront of their agenda without realizing the global tradeoffs of their regional decisions. Would it be possible to convince global leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely? From a scientific standpoint this seems to be the decision with the greatest positive outcome, yet from a political economic standpoint, the imminent risk of national security leads to hesitation. Perhaps global cooperation between nation states—a universal covenant to exchange national security for global security—is the ideal solution; yet, whether this is realistically feasible in a world so focused on the present seems much less certain. — Crystal

9 thoughts on “Local Actions, Global Consequences

  1. I would agree that the challenge lies in the chasm between the consequences of individual, short-term action, and the ultimate global repercussions. However, I would assert that policy makers are no better than average citizens at striking a balance between the two. Although in an ideal world, policy makers would “put the interest of national security at the forefront of their agenda”, I would argue that in reality there are many other important concerns that far outweigh national security for many politicians, such as the welfare of their voting district, interests of wealthy donors, and even pure party politics. While this is really just another manifestation of the conflict between what is best for the individual and the whole, these local interests of both individuals and politicians compound across the globe to result in an even smaller likelihood that global cooperation will emerge.

  2. In addition to the many issues on politicians’ agendas, I think their conceptualization of global security probably mirrors the “likelihood-impact” scenarios we graphed in class. Though the impact of a local nuclear war would have drastic consequences, we do not see it as having a very high probability of occurring. This, coupled with the fact that policy-makers are typically risk-averse, leads to a context in which policies are subject to status quo bias. This would explain why policymakers are more likely to focus on some of the other concerns mentioned in the previous post such as the welfare of their voting districts and the interest of wealthy donors.

    Furthermore, I think it is interesting to evaluate the ethical obligations that policy-makers have towards their constituencies regarding the development and use of nuclear weapons. How do you navigate the line between maintaining national security and being transparent with the citizens that security aims to protect? What are the ethical obligations of a government in contract with its people? For instance, in President Truman’s statement released by the White House, he describes the process by which the US developed the atomic bomb. In the statement, he boasts of the production plants and other scientific advancements of atomic power. Within the plants, he also mentions that “many have worked there for two and a half years. Few know what they have been producing. They see great quantities of materials going in and they see nothing coming out…” What are the moral implications of Truman’s statement and how do they fit into the conversation on the long-term and global effects of maintaining international security?

  3. Crystal could not have put it better. Individuals, whether they are civilians or policy makers, tend to be very short-sighted by nature. This is kind of expected though, as most people tend to be focused on what is imminently threatening them and what has tangible and visible impact on their daily lives. Climate change is a great example of that. 20% of Americans do not acknowledge that global warming is an actual phenomenon humanity needs to mitigate and only 48% of them acknowledge that human behavior is the primary cause of it (Source: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/). The reason for that is that threats like climate change and, similarly, a nuclear attack have little immediate visible effect in the current lives and perceived short-term future of those people. Thus, they are not listed very highly in an individual’s concerns about the future, given that these phenomena.

    However, individuals, even collectively cannot do much to prevent a nuclear attack, even if they are fully aware of it. This is because individuals cannot force any country other than their own into a specific course of action, given the influence of a citizen hardly extends beyond their borders, unless they hold a very influential position. Instead, it is the role of international entities, like the UN, which have been established specifically to handle this kind of threat to global security, to prevent the nuclear attack threat from materializing and promote nuclear disarmament.

    The problem though is that these international bodies of governance have been grossly incapable of mitigating the threat of a nuclear attack and preventing nuclear proliferation. US and Russia, the core players of the international community in issues of global security, have been modernizing their nuclear weaponry in the last three years, as reported by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board. At the same time, UN sanctions on North Korea have been grossly ineffective in discouraging from extending its nuclear program, as evident from its recent Mid-Range Ballistic Missile Test in the Sea of Japan, an open violation of UN resolutions (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/11/world/asia/north-korea-missile-test-trump.html?_r=0).

    When the global leaders of the world adopt such a hypocritical stance on the issue of nuclear disarmament and international bodies fail continuously to discourage less powerful nations from embellishing their development of nuclear weapons, it is hard to tell what an informed and fully educated on the issue individual can do. I cannot evaluate right now whether a nuclear war awaits us in the future. What I know for sure though is that I feel completely powerless when it comes to controlling this future. The average citizen of the world is a mere spectator to the current parody of international affairs on the issue of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation that is being staged right now. I can only hope it does not end with a bang.

  4. In response to Amanda’s comments about the likelihood of nuclear war, I do agree that the political and military leaders of superpowers such as the United States, Russia, and China are likely to be extremely risk-averse when it comes to a nuclear war, especially because the outcome is mutually assured destruction. Surely, the possibility of mutual destruction as the outcome of a nuclear winter or autumn — as described in Robock and Toon – would be enough to deter any logical actor. However, the potential use of nuclear arms by nations disadvantaged by traditional military strength poses the real global security threat. As Crystal explains, the short-term conflicts that these nations face demand the magnification of military power that nuclear arms provide.

    In Robock and Toon, we learn that India and Pakistan combined possess around 100 nuclear warheads, while Israel possess 80 alone. If a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would result in massive global collateral, we can assume a similar effect for a nuclear conflict involving Israel as well. India possesses an overwhelmingly stronger military than Pakistan (http://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-comparison-detail.asp?form=form&country1=India&country2=Pakistan&Submit=Compare), so in the event of an inevitable war between the two nations, Pakistan may be tempted to utilize their nuclear arsenal to try and even this imbalance of traditional military power. Similarly, if Israel is faced with a unified invasion from countries in the Middle East, they may feel similarly compelled to utilize their nuclear weapons to save themselves.

    A similar argument can be extended to North Korean and Iran. As nations directly opposed to the US, they fall far behind in traditional military strength. However, if their nuclear weapons programs grow and improve, they may be able to develop a power equalizer with the United States. Whereas, as mentioned above, the US might be too risk-averse to utilize their nuclear arsenal beyond simply deterrence, the US does not really know what to predict or how to react to developments in the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs. Between our two most recent presidents for example, we’ve had conflicting opinions towards these two programs. Where Obama hardened US relations against North Korea, Trump has seemingly dismissed the North Korean nuclear threat. And where Obama worked to regulate the Iranian nuclear program through the Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump has been very opposed to these efforts.

    Thus, the likelihood of nuclear war is still incredibly possible, especially in regions containing a disparity in traditional military power. Just as Crystal argues, in these regions, the short-term demands can overshadow the long-term effects. And, especially in the changing political landscape, it is important for us to create a unified and hardline stance targeted at these dangerous regions, so that we can prevent a nuclear winter.

  5. Building off of people’s comments about the actions of individuals and policy-makers, I am especially intrigued by the videos assigned for this week that show us how the threat of nuclear war was portrayed in political arenas and in the media during the height of the Cold War, when the country was facing the gravest threat. From these videos, it appears that the scientific evidence regarding the effects of nuclear was taken seriously by everyone on both sides of the aisle. Everyone united behind the evidence, trusted the facts, and advocated solutions that would lessen the probability of nuclear war, leading to President Reagan’s disarmament agreement and other similar initiatives. Even when Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter theory was challenged as an exaggeration, nobody attempted to claim that the effects of nuclear war would actually be nonexistent or inconsequential.

    Confusingly, climate change in our current political context has not been treated in the same manner, even though its supposed effects are similarly catastrophic. Politicians from one side of the aisle frame climate change as the single most threatening global crisis of our time, while politicians from the other side of the aisle claim that the problem does not exist. When the supposed effects of climate change are on par with that of nuclear war, what accounts for the differences in treatment by politicians and media outlets? Why hasn’t the American public reacted to the threat of climate change, and the word of scientists on this matter, in the same way that they reacted to the threat of nuclear war? From a public policy perspective, perhaps it would be useful to study how scientists and politicians got their message across about the threat of nuclear war and try to use these methods to ignite fear about climate change and bring about immediate action before it is too late. From a purely risk-based perspective, both nuclear war and climate change should about survival, not politics, yet climate change has become one of the most politicized issues of the day, which gravely threatens our ability to take action or make any progress on the problem.

  6. I was very intrigued by Crystal’s statement, “[P]olicy makers tend to put the interest of national security at the forefront of their agenda without realizing the global tradeoffs of their regional decisions.” This point succinctly summarizes the nuclear weapons dilemma, particularly for humanitarian-focused nations like the United States. In the name of military strength and for the protection of its citizens, the United States has felt forced to build up their nuclear stash – however, this heightened security has come at a cost. No nation wants to feel inferior and at the mercy of another powerful rival state – consequently, even in our post-Cold War era today, a nuanced arms race continues as nations produce more nuclear arms in order to avoid falling victim to the whims of nuclear-powered nations. As long as this build-up of nuclear power continues for any nation, a never-ending conundrum of this quiet arms race will continue, with more nations opting to join in.

    Additionally, I was interested by the idea of how the individual choices of everyday citizens can impact global security, as witnessed in the video, “The House in the Middle.” The video is an engaging call to action for good housekeeping, demonstrating how small actions like housekeeping can impact a family’s welfare and survival in the wake of a nuclear attack. However, it disregards the real danger associated with a nuclear attack; if a family is close enough to an attack for their home to be hit as the video displayed, even if they avoid the immediate ramifications of the fireball, undoubtedly they will face extreme danger – likely death – through radiation, heat/shock waves, etc. To me, this video seems to be a feeble attempt to delegate “responsibility” to the individual citizen so that they feel as if they have a real ability to protect themselves and their families, and combat nuclear war. In reality, attempts of daily housecleaning or, for example, climbing under a school desk will do nothing to further protect them from a power as great as a nuclear bomb, except to provide a peace of mind and sense of false security. With this in mind, I disagree with Crystal’s conclusion that “actions as local as housekeeping can sum to larger global consequences.” Nuclear warfare is ultimately a question of big dogs playing war with each other – leaving the little man as a pawn in the hands of nations vying for power and protection. No amount of housekeeping can protect everyday citizens from the choices the powerful make for them or in spite of them.

  7. I completely agree with Yannis in that “I cannot evaluate right now whether a nuclear war awaits us in the future… I feel completely powerless when it comes to controlling this future.” We see political experts and common people talking about international affairs everywhere all the time, but few people actually understand what is happening and what will happen. I don’t think as an individual far away from the center of political power, I can predict whether there will be a nuclear war. So except from understanding the destructive nature of nuclear war and hoping it would never happen, there is not much we can do.
    What we can do, though, are small things that would sum up to a larger global consequences. Crystal mentioned that house keeping would make a difference when houses are exposed to the heat effects of atomic exposure. I doubt that it is a perfect example, because if an atomic bomb were to explode and influence the two houses, radiation or heat waves would eventually severely harm or kill the people living inside both houses. What I think might be a better example of smaller things that people can do is more on a daily basis: saving energy and resources, supporting recycling, etc. I know that some people might believe that these factors we contribute are nothing compared to the mass effect of nuclear war or other catastrophic issue, but I would like to keep an optimistic view about the future, and if there never is a nuclear war, the small things we did would indeed sum up and produce a long term effect on our planet.

  8. I want to uncover some counter-intuitive notions about how close we are to nuclear warfare and resulting catastrophe.

    I do not believe in the presented notion that we are teetering on the edge of widespread catastrophe with regards to nuclear warfare, and my disbelief in this somber notion is precisely due to the increasing prevalence of nuclear weapons as well as their immensely destructive power. Yes, I am counter-intuitively saying that due to the increased presence of nuclear weapons and their supreme global destructive power, the world is actually safer than one may intuitively think, not as safe as a world without nuclear weapons, but not on the brink of nuclear warfare either. As Crystal stated, the smoke produced by even a regional nuclear war would have global ramifications, wreaking havoc upon all global citizens, including the ones who released the nuclear weapon. This grave global consequence serves as a deterrent for nuclear weapons use. Essentially, a country would not want to engage in nuclear warfare since it would harm itself significantly in the process. Now, the effect of this deterrent would be rather low if only one country had nuclear weapons, since nuclear warfare would likely involve fewer unleashed nuclear weapons and would have less of a negative impact on the party that released these weapons. However, in contemporary times where many countries possess nuclear weapons and the threat of retaliation exists, countries are more deterred from using nuclear weapons since the resulting global damages will likely be significantly higher. This idea I am presenting essentially is extending upon the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). In a MAD scenario, parties are disincentivized to engage in war since they know they will all be wiped out if war occurs. This situation is similar to the situation of nuclear warfare. Though a regional nuclear war may not lead to all parties being wiped out, it does lead to extremely grave global circumstances, which serve as a significant deterrent to nuclear warfare, a deterrent only made stronger by the threat of retaliation by other powers with nuclear capabilities. Simply put, the payoff of winning a war through nuclear means is lower due to the immense damage it will inflict globally, significant disincentivizing nuclear warfare.

    However, this deterrent effect only holds if countries are thinking rationally and completely understand the effects of nuclear weapons. Perhaps a more realistic solution that will lead to a decreased probability of nuclear warfare is educating policymakers on the specifics of the global impact of nuclear weapons, rather than forming a universal covenant with the hope that countries will follow their word. In short, asymmetric information and irrational thinking are the core risks that must be addressed in order to practically reduce the probability of nuclear warfare, since nuclear weapons themselves cannot practically be taken out of the equation.

  9. I think what is most interesting about Crystal’s comments and the subsequent comments is the intrinsic link that is made between Nuclear war and global warming. Especially because of the recent shift in administration in the United States, we are going to struggle to make a case to prevent future climate damage. Though our leaders make claims that it is not only not a threat, but that it is actually not real, global warming is in fact one of the few crises that is not just an “if” but a “when.” As mentioned above, this catastrophe was one of the highest ranking in both likelihood and impact in our class, and for just cause. On the other hand, nuclear war was considered also to have a high impact, but not as likely. What I found to interesting, therefore, about this week was the connection that was made between the two crises without actually directly using the word global warming.
    Robock’s article described the inevitability of a “nuclear winter” in which the side effects would be global destruction due to the soot cloud produced from the bombs that would create a layer in the Ozone. I think that is amazing about this conception is that it was widely accepted by scientists at the time and remains a plausible and likely outcome today (even if some have lessened the potential consequences from a nuclear winter to a nuclear fall where life would sustain, just in a more precarious situation.) This broad acceptance of an outcome shocked me because on the other hand, as I mentioned, global warming is still contested. Then, after reading Crystal’s comments, I realized humans tend to think in the short term. Therefore,people can accept that a quick consequence of nuclear war would be global destruction, but that cannot fathom global warming as being their fault because there is not just one action that has led to it, but rather an accumulation of many actions over many years. It seems ridiculous, as Crystal put, that people cannot take the time to do small things to improve the environment, and yet at the same time makes sense as humans tend to think primarily about short-term gain, and as global warming continues to be the threat of the future, albeit near and in some ways present, people cannot be bothered to take responsibility for it. Their is no clear president to take responsibility, as their would be with a bomb and subsequent global impact.
    The other aspect that was talked a lot about in this thread was how and if the governments and elected officials should attempt to end the creation of nuclear weapons and eliminate past weapons. What scares me, however, is that whether or not there are bans on the weapons, people can find the means to create and detonate them. After reading the articles for thursday, like “Amateur A-Bomb” and “How to get a Bomb in the Backyard”, I realized how easy it is becoming to create a bomb. In the first article a student threatened to detonate a bomb, and while the threat ended up being fake, what was shocking was that people realized it could have been real. The second examined how a coordinated group of just around 13 people could create a bomb within the US in one year with about 10 million dollars. This, though still costly, is continuing to drop as bomb makers are beginning to look into using Plutonium rather than Uranium. As Plutonium is more common this will allow the bombs to be made in a cheaper fashion and therefore more regularly. The point of brining in these articles is that I think the hardest part about questioning who should take initiative about banning nuclear weapons is that the ban could prove to be ineffective in the future as technologies become more intricate and resources more versatile. Yes, I do think a ban should occur, but I suppose my question becomes how long until the technology catches up to us and creating a nuclear bomb can be made in a household setting? If that becomes the case, the nuclear winter will be almost inevitable as well as mutual destruction of countries.

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