Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons Risk?

For citizens to meaningfully participate in eliminating nuclear weapons, there are a number of conversations we need to be prepared to have -- with our associates in the community, and with our representatives in government.

It seems to me that at the top of the list is a conversation about risk.

We tend not to be very good at thinking about risk. Perhaps the canonical example of our difficulty is contained in the question, "What is more dangerous -- flying or driving?" People tend to think of flying as more dangerous, but statistically, per mile traveled, driving is far more dangerous. (Coincidentally, today's New York Times summarizes an updated guide to everyday risks: "Opioids, Car Crashes and Falling: The Odds of Dying in the U.S.")

Two observations:

(1) Many risks -- such as those just mentioned -- represent frequently occurring events. There are specialists (actuaries) who tabulate past occurrences and calculate odds of future occurrences. They provide the basis for the insurance industry.

(2) Even such well-documented and well-described risks are generally met by ordinary people with a very human response: "Great, now can I put this out of my mind?"

In the spectrum of risks, there is another kind of risk: the non-frequently occurring event. To tear an example from today's headlines, what is the risk that a non-politician will be elected president of the US, and then force a government shutdown in order to obtain appropriations for building a wall on the US border with Mexico?

You can venture guesstimates of the likelihood, but there if very little prior information upon which to base them.

(The term "black swan" was recently popularized for the extreme form of such a non-frequently occurring event: something that nobody saw coming.)

Two more observations:

(3) Without actuarial analysis, it is not possible to insure against these kinds of risks in the ordinary way. Still, there are people (risk managers) who do their best to try to make guesstimates of the odds, and to come up with (cost-justified) ways of avoiding such risks.

(4) These kinds of events are particularly susceptible to the natural human response: "I don't have to think about this, do I?"

It was this second type of risk that I focused on when I wrote about the example of a piece of a church facade falling and striking a pedestrian. That example helped me understand how, in advance of an event, it may seem hard to justify devoting a lot of resources to worrying about it; but after the event occurs, its importance becomes all too clear and unavoidable.

How might this be helpful in informing conversations about nuclear weapons risk? Well, it does seem helpful to recognize that nuclear weapons risk is more like the second category of non-frequently occurring event, and less like the category of frequently occurring, actuarial, insurable risks.

But in another sense, we are still not there yet. The truth came home to me the other night when I watched the Errol Morris documentary about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.  In it, McNamara stresses the point, "With nuclear weapons, there's no learning period." In other words, if and when nuclear weapons are used, there will be no second chance.

This led to an epiphany for me: nuclear weapons risk does not occupy a place within the spectrum of all other risks. It occupies its own unique place. Yes, it is like the other non-frequently occurring events, but it is also different in an important way: the consequences are world-ending. (There was a time when it was fashionable to talk about surviving nuclear war -- contemplating a range of "tragic but distinguishable postwar states" -- but most people have now shed that illusion.)

So: what to do about this unique risk?

*   *   *

It seems to me that the peculiar feature of this risk is that the consequences are so outsized that they obviate any value in trying to suss out the likelihood. For once, we can all agree that something is unknowable.

For instance, I may believe that, under the current circumstances, nuclear war could happen in the next ten years. Another person may believe it could very well happen within one year. Yet a third might say, "The best estimate is that there will be one occurrence in 1,000 years."

But the magnitude of the consequences should make it possible for us to set aside our different guesstimates and focus on the intolerability of the outcome.

(And -- funny thing -- once we set aside our guesstimates it becomes possible to admit to ourselves how little confidence we can have in anyone's assurances about the likelihood/unlikelihood of nuclear war.)

Truly, this is unlike any other risk.

*   *   *

By the way, it might help if this unique risk had a name. For now, I will call it Kappa Risk (like the Greek letter K).

Think of it as the apex or "cap" -- the most outstanding of all risks.

K also happens to be the first letter in Καιρός (Kairos or Caerus), the Greek god of risk.

(Greek letters are used heavily in risk management, though K does not (yet) have a prominent role.)

*   *   *

I guess there is the problem of what to do about people who think there is zero probability of nuclear weapons actually being used -- "It will never happen." In other words, people who believe Kappa Risk doesn't exist.

Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

*   *   *

Even better than a name for this type of risk, I suppose, would be a picture or symbol. If 2018 has taught me anything, it is that an emoji is worth a thousand words.

How to sum up visually the idea of a one-of-a-kind risk, one whose consequences truly threaten to end our world, and whose likelihood is practically unknowable (but certainly real)? Something short and sweet -- representing the need to put this risk squarely on the table and then more forward to eliminate it?

Herewith, a proposal:

Design for an emoji: Kappa Risk.
(The one-of-a-kind risk that characterizes nuclear weapons -
consequences that truly threaten to end our world, and
likelihood that is practically unknowable (but certainly real).)
(Image: Joe Scarry)

(With apologies to The Emoji Movie.)

Now: in what ways might we be able to better accomplish our work as citizens once we can converse clearly about the singular risk of nuclear weapons?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Hawaii Alert: What Have We Learned?

"Let's play a game . . . . "
(Image: Joe Scarry)

One year ago tomorrow, people in Hawaii were subjected to a warning that missiles were incoming.

Have we learned anything from that experience? I have tried to hear about the experiences of people who were there that day, and I have suggested that there should be a broad-based effort to do so.

Of the stories that I have heard, this is the one I just can't get out of my mind: A mother and father were at home with their little boy. They realized there was no safe place in the house to take shelter, and that the best they could do was to get in the innermost part of the house, get down on the floor, and try to shield their son with their own bodies. And so for the duration of the alert they formed a tight ball, telling their son that they were playing a game, and the point of the game was to cover every single part of his body with their bodies, so not a single part was showing.

That posture -- in a tight embrace with our beloveds, waiting for the end, accepting our own fate and yet hoping for a better fate for someone else -- seems to me very symbolic of where we have ended up in this nuclear weapons-dominated world.

I wonder: if we confronted what we have really been reduced to, might it help us stand up and demand a change?

Related posts: 

"Dawn of a new Armageddon" by Cynthia Lazaroff in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"Nuclear False Alarm Shows Why State Politics Are Not Enough" by Emma Claire Foley on Beyond the Bomb website.

"Mourning Armageddon" music video by Makana - "As one of over a million people in Hawai'i who were told on January 13, 2018 that they were about to be hit by a nuclear missile, renowned Hawai’i artist Makana said, 'Waking to an alert of a nuclear attack in Hawai’i got me thinking. Why is this even a possibility?'"

See also:

The Children Are Waiting

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brief Encounter: The Nuclear Sponge

The corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet hosts
150 Minuteman-III nuclear missiles, 50 each in the 319th, 320th,
and 321st Missile Squadrons of the USAF 90th Missile Wing, based
at Francis E. Warren AFB, just west of Cheyenne, WY. The missile
silos surround a 100-mile stretch of Rt. 80. (Sketch: Joe Scarry)

Speaking of the long drive from the Bay Area to Madeline Island . . . our route took us through one of three missile fields where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are based in the US.

There are three areas where US land-based nuclear missiles are based, each with about 150 missiles: Montana, South Dakota, and the corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet. Our trip took us through the last of these.

The missiles are in silos underground, so there is not much to see as you speed along Rt. 80. One might even wonder if the people who live in the area even know they're there.

Luckily, we had the perfect audiobook for the drive: The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland, by Gretchen Heefner. Heefner's book focuses on the first phase of nuclear missiles being brought to the region, beginning in the '60s. Anyone who wants to know about public engagement (and dis-engagement) around the issue of nuclear weapons will want to study this work carefully.

The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in
the American Heartland
, by Gretchen Heefner
Here's one small facet of the story: the strategy behind installing the missiles in these locations is referred to as the "nuclear sponge." The thinking goes like this: in the event of all-out nuclear war, an adversary would need to expend a large part of its arsenal attempting to destroy the US missile silos. The vast areas of Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado containing 450 widely spaced missile silos would serve to "soak up" a big part of the nuclear force aimed at the US. Every incoming missile soaked up by the "sponge" would be one less headed for Chicago or San Francisco.

(A technical note: currently, those 450 Minuteman-III missiles are each topped with three W78 warheads. The explosive power of a single W78 is believed to be in the range of 335-350 kilotons, or something over 20 times the size of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That means the destructive power of Minuteman-III missiles spread across Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado is about 27,000 Hiroshimas.)

What did (and do) people in these plains states think about being part of the nuclear sponge? And about the 27,000-Hiroshima arsenal nestled amidst their fields and pastures? Heefner's book gives some answers; a lot more are needed.

My brief encounter with the Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado nuclear sponge gave me a chance to consider some difficult questions. Is it possible that the missile fields will never experience an attack? and/or never have an accident? Perhaps everything's going to be okay? Perhaps I should just sit back and enjoy the scenery? . . . and/but . . . What if . . . ? What if the thing that everyone hopes (expects, assumes) won't really happen . . . really does happen?

Monday, January 7, 2019

One Thing: the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

Lake Superior and the mainland of Wisconsin,
viewed from the south side of Madeline Island.

It is 2019 and I have come to live on Madeline Island.

My hope is that I will be able to use my time here to make progress on the problem that has come to seem to me more urgent than any other: the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It is so easy to be distracted, and, heaven knows, one would like to think about anything else . . . .

But there is less excuse for getting distracted in Madeline Island. Maybe I can make a little progress every day.

*   *   *   *   *   

I am heartened by one fact: during the 115th Congress (2017-2018) a bill to restrict the US president's ability to use nuclear weapons obtained the support of 82 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 13 co-sponsors in the Senate. (See: H.R.669 - Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 and corresponding Senate bill S. 200.)

Here's a chart I made showing the growth of that support month-by-month:

Growth of support for HR.669
Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017

There was support for the bill across the country -- although by far the strongest support was on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor.

*   *   *   *   *   

Eliminating nuclear weapons: more urgent than any other problem. What if all 535 US senators and representatives decided to take on this challenge?

And -- perhaps more importantly -- what if citizens in each of their states and districts became those senators' and representatives' dedicated collaborators in accomplishing this?

I have always believed that constituents had a role to play in influencing action in Congress. But as our departure for Madeline Island neared, I began to think much more deeply about what that role might look like. To put it bluntly: might citizens be co-problem-solvers together with the people serving in Congress, and with their staff? Might there be value in conversation and relationship that goes far beyond ordinary "issue advocacy"? -- especially on a problem of such an existential character?

*   *   *   *   *   

It's been a long week: California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and finally Wisconsin. Now it's time to rest.

There will be time to talk more about citizenship tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Climate: We All Need to Be Futurists Now

Image from New York Times interactive map showing flooding
(in light blue) projected from a 5 foot sea level rise - the area around
 Sacramento is vulnerable to very severe flooding from breached levees.

On a long drive from Berkeley to Los Angeles this past January, I tried to stretch my mind as broadly as possible about the future situation we face. As I left one coastal California metropolis to visit another coastal California metropolis, I spent about four hours traversing the state's Central Valley, and it was the perfect place to mediate on the interrelationships of climate, migration, economic development, political culture, and more. Those reflections jolted me to attention, and led me to write California and Climate Crisis: The End?

For the past six months or so, I have found my mind returning again and again to those issues. Each time I think I know the one most important thing that I want to share, I find that new questions overtake me.

Maybe the best thing to do is to start by sharing the questions . . . .

(1) Why aren't we talking about "retreat"?
A few months ago, I read the book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson. It put facts around my sense that we're kidding ourselves when all we talk about is holding the rising sea back; we need to be talking about retreat.

This has been a growing concern of mine since at least 2013, when I wrote NYC + H2O = Uh-oh! Now that I live in the Bay Area, and I have friends who are scientists here, I am hearing in real time from them that there are significant areas near where I live that are at risk.

(2) Can investors possibly be blind to the coastal inundation threat? I have been particularly mystified by the "it's all a hoax" posture on the political right. Frankly, it doesn't matter what people say on Fox or in Twitter feeds; what really matters is where smart money is going. (See The Feel-Good Folly of Fossil-Fuel Valuation.) So how can it be possible that investors aren't fleeing anything that is associated with the risk of sea level rise? Why aren't they pulling back behind a safe margin?

(3) Will poor people be left holding the bag? A simple explanation is that society at large (and particularly the investor class) is taking sea level rise in stride because it's really just a small segment of the population that will be hurt -- the poor. ("The poor will have to be satisfied with whatever relief the rest of us deign to provide them.")

(4) Will the 99% be left holding the bag?  Another explanation is that, no matter what costs have to be born as coastal inundation happens, the 1% can count on the government to foot the bill. There will be a bail-out. It will be another "too big to fail" situation.

(5) Are we really that feckless? Places like New Orleans and Miami have a strange utility for people in the rest of the country, who are able to say, "Well, perhaps something bad is coming, but anyway Miami will have to deal with it long before we have to, here . . . . "

(6) Is higher ground the answer? Living in Berkeley, where I can glance up to all the elegant houses perched on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, it's easy to think, "Well, certainly they are in a safe place!" But I wonder if we underestimate how devastating it will be to our overall community and economy when even just a few percent of the businesses, infrastructure, and housing close to the Bay is compromised. At what point does "their problem" become "our problem"?

(7) Do we underestimate the impact of concurrent disaster? I sense there is a tendency to say, "Sure, coastal inundation is terrifying -- but we do know how to respond. Look at all the instances of hurricane recovery that we've done!" I fear people have not begun to take seriously what it means to be trying to hold back the sea in many locations at once.

Take a look at the interactive page set up by the New York Times -- "What Could Disappear" -- that let's you simulate what's in store for cities/regions like Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Long Island, Miami, Mobile, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York City, Northern California, Philadelphia, Portland(both ME and OR), Providence, San Diego, Savannah, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Washington, Wilmington  . . . all at the same time . . . !

(8) Do we face unimaginable levels of human migration? If different parts of the US are at odds with each other over immigration today, what is it going to look like in years to come when many more millions are displaced in our immediate vicinity and worldwide due to sea level rise?

(9) Is it possible it's all going to come down on us faster than we expect? When I began reading the California reports I referenced in my January post, I noticed that much bigger, faster levels of sea level rise and inundation were projected than anything you typically hear about. I realized the full story is not reaching us. This was partly explained in Extreme Cities, which ways that scientists have become conditioned to behave "conservatively," i.e. not emphasize the direst possibilities, because if they do, people will stop listening to them.

What happens if we open our ears to the scientists' full story? A story in the East Bay Express this spring provided an epiphany for me:

Scientists predict that by 2100, global sea levels will rise 2 to 8 feet. And so far, the previous lower-end predictions of climate change have turned out to be too conservative. Some scientists also warn that a rapid disintegration of Antarctica's ice sheets could cause sea levels to jump 4 to 10 feet by century's end.

John Radke, a UC Berkeley associate professor of City and Regional Planning, has been examining models of likely impacts from sea-level rise on the Bay Area and California. He said the real threat from higher seas in the region will come from powerful storm surges during periods of heavy rain and high tides. "The storms are going to be more frequent," he said. "And the storms are going to be stronger."

Storm surge events will flood coastal areas, inflicting costly damage on shoreline homes and infrastructure. Radke said that, in the coming decades, Bay Area transportation officials will probably have to abandon Interstate 880 through Oakland, because it won't be worth repairing after it washes away repeatedly during floods. "If enough catastrophes happen, we might wake up," he said.

(See "The East Bay's Future Climate Will Be Both Dry and Wet" by Robert Gammon, East Bay Express, February 14, 2018.)

To imprint this reality on your brain, I recommend the documentary Chasing Ice. If you still think we've got all the time in the world, you'll change your mind after watching footage of a glacier edge the size of lower Manhattan disintegrate over the course of an hour.

(10) Will the US actually fall far behind the rest of the world in responding to sea level rise? The Trump Administration withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords woke people up to something they may not have thought about before: other countries may be doing it better. I'm particularly curious about what happens in more centrally-planned economies, that may be better accustomed to long-term thinking and national infrastructure management.

About five years ago I begin thinking about the parallel situations of the US and China in dealing with the climate crisis. (See #chinaEARTHusa - Radical Change? or Planetocide?) I now wonder if China may do a much better job than the US, when all is said and done.

More to come on each of these questions . . . .

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trump Is Right: It's Time to Deprecate NATO and Denuclearize

NATO: Soooooo 1949!!

"Deprecate" is a fancy software word that means, "That's so last year. Don't use it any more. Everybody's doing this new thing . . . ."

I'm sure many in the defense establishment are having a conniption over Trump's deprecation of NATO. But maybe they just need to get with the times . . . ?

Ever since the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, I've been struggling with this problem: NATO isn't helping us, and is probably hurting us, but it's got loads of supporters in the establishment and the general public is puzzled about what it's all about. So how do we ever move on?

That's why the word "deprecate" seems appropriate. While admitting that it's going to take some time to work the remnants out of the system, let's set our sights on the next thing and start developing.

You can see how how ready NATO is to be retired by looking at how even its supporters talk about it. Yesterday's New York Times touted the importance of NATO by dragging out the tired old quip that got the whole thing started 70 years ago:

"keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down"

(Oh, yeah, and the Times cited NATO's role in those paragons of successful military adventure: "Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere.")


For years, I've been writing about the need for the US president to get down to the real business at hand: finish the job of negotiating nuclear disarmament with Russia.

Obama wouldn't even sit down with Putin. By scheduling a meeting with Putin, Trump is already ahead of the game.

As for NATO, one glaring problem is its annual war games at the Russian border (e.g. "US Army Launches War Games on NATO's Eastern Flank"). I wonder if during the next 48 hours, Trump will say something similar to his remarks with respect to Korea:

"Holding back the 'war games' during the negotiations was my request because they are VERY EXPENSIVE and set a bad light during a good faith negotiation. Also, quite provocative. Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!"

That would lead to more conniptions at the Pentagon, I'm sure.

On the other hand, the nations of Europe (including all those erstwhile NATO members) should be the first to see the urgency of denuclearizing.

The US and Russia control the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons.
(Image: Global News)

(More on Europe and denuclearization.)

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Monday, July 9, 2018

The Multimedia Church: Movie Night

Poster for screening of The Interrupters
at St. Luke's Logan Square, Chicago.
A friend brought up the idea the other night of having movie night at church.

It reminded me that we did quite a few screenings at the church I attended in Chicago, St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square. It occurs to me that the list of St. Luke's film screenings is not yet assembled in a single place, so here it is:

(We also screened Gasland, Love Free or Die, Encounter Point, and 9500 Liberty.)

The recent conversation reminded me that there were a few things we learned from our "Social Justice Film Series" at St. Luke's:

* Purpose - It's important to know what you are trying to do. We thought of ourselves as trying to encourage conversation on issues of concern to people in the congregation, and in the larger community.

* Connection to congregational activities - Often we were able to make a direct connection to one or more of the missions or activities of the congregation.

* Spread the word! - As the links above suggest, we did a number of things to tell people about each screening -- before and after each event. 

* Guest panelists - We were fortunate to be able to find one or two (or sometimes more!) knowledgeable guests to help with discussion following each film. Chicago has a wealth of community organizers and social justice activists.

* Discussion time - We learned that we needed to plan in order for there to be adequate time for discussion. Often we used Sunday afternoons for the film screenings/discussions (because after an evening film screening many people don't have the energy for discussion), and we tried to select films that were not too long.

* Steering - We had quite a robust social justice committee, and the process of programming the "Social Justice Film Series" was itself quite rewarding to the participants.

* Food - Last but not least: we always had a more lively participation and discussion if we provided ample refreshments.

Of course, this is not to say that we had all the answers. But we did start to understand some of the questions!

Now . . . I'm curious to learn about what other churches are doing with their movie nights!

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