Exactly 39 years ago this week, a Soviet military officer ended an all-out nuclear war. On the night of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was monitoring early warning systems when alarms went off: the United States had just launched five nuclear missiles towards Russia. Where did he have it?
Under immense pressure to retaliate, Petrov instead followed an instinct and told his superiors that the impending attack was a false alarm. This instinctive feeling prevented a nuclear exchange it would have killed up to 288 million people – by far the deadliest violent event in human history.
Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are not just a thing of the past. More … than 13,000 nuclear warheads still exist, and the war in Ukraine has shown how easily nuclear tensions can escalate. Just last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made veiled nuclear threats as he mobilized additional troops in his faltering battle against Ukraine.
And nuclear weapons are not only related to wars. People are dying today radiation-related illnesses – the result of a shameful legacy of nuclear testing in populated areas.
Nuclear weapons rank alongside climate change and pandemics as existential threats to life as we know it. And yet, nuclear risk reduction is one of the most underfunded areas of philanthropy. According to data from Peace and Security Funding Card. Nearly 60% of these philanthropic funds came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which next year plans to stop investing in nuclear-related programs — dealing a blow to nonprofits that have long depended on his support.
All donors today have a unique opportunity to shape this important and underserved area. Groups focused on preventing nuclear proliferation are woefully underfunded because the field is mistakenly seen as too bureaucratic and its work too technical and difficult to measure. How, after all, do you measure a negative effect, like preventing a nuclear terrorist attack or averting a nuclear war? Anything hard to measure is also hard to fund – unless risk-tolerant donors with long-term horizons are willing to step in.
In reality, nuclear issues are not rocket science. A Ph.D. is not necessary to understand and offer solutions on how to approach the nuclear problem. And a myriad of philanthropic supports politics winschrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://static1.squarespace.com/static/62435b2d773bcf0ad9cbb672/t/62d9ad8c9ac0d7128efd67cc/1658432915487/The+Changing+Landscape+of+Nuclear+Security+Philanthropy.pdf that change is possible and does not just happen behind bureaucratic doors.
Heightened public concern about nuclear issues should also attract more funders to this work. A recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most Americans are very concerned that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and 75% are “at least somewhat concerned that the Russia will target the United States with nuclear weapons”.
Donors can help in three targeted ways to prevent a catastrophic nuclear war.
Building political power. One of the greatest obstacles to philanthropic engagement in nuclear issues is the focus on policy change. Direct advocacy or lobbying funding is one way to achieve such change, but it is far from the only way. Several nonprofit organizations are involved in grassroots mass mobilization efforts to build political power around the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons, but these are often rudimentary operations that require more donor dollars.
They include groups such as beyond the bomb, which relies primarily on volunteers to build support at the local, state, and national levels to prevent nuclear war. The organization currently defends legislation it would limit the president’s singular power to start a nuclear conflict. More prominent groups, such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weaponswhich won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, needs the financial support and visibility of reliable philanthropic support.
The convening power of philanthropy can also be particularly valuable. Some of the most important nuclear negotiations of recent decades have benefited from the support of foundations. For example, donors such as Share fund, did not play a small role in the successful ratification of the new treaty on the reduction of strategic arms in 2010 by bring the nuclear community together around a joint communication strategy, a popular campaign, the training of political decision-makers and direct lobbying. The treaty reduced the strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the Americans and Russians by about 30%.
At President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security was a collaborator and paid all expenses for round-trip airfare, hotel rooms, and an expensive downtown Washington, D.C. location so that more than 100 nuclear security experts from around the world could meet with policy makers on strategies for locking down nuclear bombs. manufacture materials that can fall into the hands of terrorists. Stanley’s continued support has enabled civil society to play an important role on this and other nuclear issues – and to hold decision-makers accountable for their commitments.
Because peace and security issues are so fluid and fast-paced, rapid-response grants are often needed to address crises or respond to unforeseen opportunities for progress. During the negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, for example, donors paid experts to carry out unofficial or Track-II, diplomacy. This included backstage talks at dinners in Geneva, which were funded by private foundations and helped bring participants closer to an agreement.
Fund research. New data and analysis give decision-makers the tools they need to respond to nuclear threats. For example, a recent study by Metaculus, which aggregates expert information to predict events, found that the risk of nuclear conflict following the war in Ukraine is similar to the risk during the Cold War.
Research has also played a crucial role in Iran nuclear deal. Specifically, a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to Princeton University’s Science and Global Security Program supported research involving a central obstacle to a successful deal: Iran’s Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor, which could be used to produce plutonium. The Princeton team suggested a reactor core redesign that would make it impossible to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, leading to a proposal from Iran to drastically reduce plutonium production and address a key technical hurdle to an agreement.
Hire new leaders. The nuclear field has long been the prerogative of mostly white men. Several efforts aim to change this dynamic and would benefit from increased funding. Non-profit groups such as bombshelltoe and N-squarefor example, use art and other innovations to make nuclear discussion more accessible to the general public and to tap new perspectives.
The Plowshares fund recently announcement $1 million in new grants to “build a stronger community of advocates…working together across identity, sector and geography to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.” The grants are part of Plowshare’s Equity Rises initiative, which aims to develop a more diverse pipeline of nuclear leaders.
Stanford Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman declared in 2009 that “the risk that a child born today will die prematurely from nuclear war is at least 10%”. Every provocation between nuclear-weapon states, whether intentional or inadvertent, presents a small risk of nuclear war, but the cumulative probability over a century of such incidents makes “nuclear war virtually inevitable.”
These grim odds deserve everyone’s attention, but should be of particular interest to donors who care about peace, security, and the sustainability of future life on Earth. Today’s younger generations shouldn’t have to grow up wondering if they will have the luxury of a future. While nuclear weapons are just one of the existential threats we face today, they are alarmingly underrepresented in the philanthropic conversation. This needs to change urgently.