Prepare for Nuclear Winter by Robin Hanson

Prepare for Nuclear Winter by Robin Hanson

An article written by Robin Hanson published on the Overcoming Bias, Robin’s blog site.

Prepare for Nuclear Winter


If a 1km asteroid were to hit the Earth, the dust it kicked up would block most sunlight over most of the world for 3 to 10 years. There’s only a one in a million chance of that happening per year, however. Whew. However, there’s a ten times bigger chance that a super volcano, such as the one hiding under Yellowstone, might explode, for a similar result. And I’d put the chance of a full scale nuclear war at ten to one hundred times larger than that: one in ten thousand to one thousand per year. Over a century, that becomes a one to ten percent chance. Not whew; grimace instead.

There is a substantial chance that a full scale nuclear war would produce a nuclear winter, with a similar effect: sunlight is blocked for 3-10 years or more. Yes, there are good criticisms of the more extreme forecasts, but there’s still a big chance the sun gets blocked in a full scale nuclear war, and there’s even a substantial chance of the same result in a mere regional war, where only 100 nukes explode (the world now has 15,000 nukes).

I’ll summarize this as saying we face roughly a one in 10,000 chance per year of most all sunlight on Earth being blocked for 5 to 10 years. Which accumulates to become a 1% chance per century. This is about as big as your one in 9000 personal chance each year of dying in a car accident, or your one in 7500 chance of dying from poisoining. We treat both of these other risks as nontrivial, and put substantial efforts into reducing and mitigating such risks, as we also do for many much smaller risks, such as dying from guns, fire, drowning, or plane crashes. So this risk of losing sunlight for 5-10 years seems well worth reducing or mitigating, if possible.

Even in the best case, the world has only enough stored food to feed everyone for about a year. If the population then gradually declined due to cannibalism of the living, the population falls in half every month, and we’d all be dead in a few years. To save your family by storing ten years of food, you not only have to spend a huge sum now, you’d have to stay very well hidden or defended. Just not gonna happen.

Yeah, probably a few people live on, and so humanity doesn’t go extinct. But the only realistic chance most of us have of surviving in this scenario is to use our vast industrial and scientific abilities to make food. We actually know of many plausible ways to make more than enough food to feed everyone for ten years, even with no sunlight. And even if big chunks of the world economy are in shambles. But for that to work, we must preserve enough social order to make use of at least the core of key social institutions.

Many people presume that as soon as everyone hears about a big problem like this, all social institutions immediately collapse and everyone retreats to their compound to fight a war of all against all, perhaps organized via local Mad-Max-style warlords. But in places where this happens, everyone dies, or moves to places where something else happens.

Many take this as an opportunity to renew their favorite debate, on the right roles for government in society. But while there are clearly many strong roles for government to play in such a situation, it seems unlikely that government can smoothly step into all of the roles required here. Instead, we need an effective industry, to make food, collect its inputs, allocate its workers, and distribute its products. And we need to prepare enough to allow a smooth transition in a crisis; waiting until after the sunlights goes to try to plan this probably ends badly.

Thus while there are important technical aspects of this problem, the core of the problem is social: how to preserve functioning social institutions in a crisis. So I call to social scientist superheroes: we light the “bat signal”, and call on you to apply your superpowers. How can we keep enough peace to make enough food, so we don’t all starve, if Earth loses sunlight for a decade?

To learn more on making food without sunlight, see ALLFED.