Securing a Flourishing Future by Forecasting Nuclear Risks

by Michael Aird, Staff Researcher at Rethink Priorities

Starting June 22, Metaculus and Rethink Priorities Will Run the Nuclear Risk Forecasting Tournament to Improve Research and Decisions on Risks from Nuclear Weapons

In 1941, no one had ever built a nuclear weapon, and most people had no idea that anyone ever might. Over the following 80 years, the Allies built such weapons, the US detonated two on cities, and scientists and engineers developed or proposed many new and vastly more destructive types of nuclear weapons. Global stockpiles peaked at 70,000 warheads (compared to today’s ~13,000), and the total yield of the US arsenal alone peaked at over a million times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In 2021, nine states are believed to possess nuclear weapons (Russia, the United States, China, France, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea). In theory, they could launch them at any time, this could directly cause millions of deaths, and this could perhaps indirectly — via nuclear winter — cause billions of deaths and even the permanent loss of our potential to reach a flourishing future.

On the other hand, nuclear weapons have never again been used in war since 1945, warhead numbers and total yields have declined dramatically since their peaks, and if nuclear conflict does occur it might involve low numbers of weapons, low yields, or targets that result in relatively low fatality levels and no nuclear winter.

So how likely are each of the strikingly different possible futures of nuclear risks? And what can and should we do about this — which goals should we pursue, and how can we use our limited resources to best achieve them?

Rethink Priorities is investigating these questions in order to help improve funding, policy, research, and career decisions aimed at reducing existential risks. The scope and theory of change for this work is discussed in more detail here. These questions are complex, high-stakes, and time-sensitive, so we want to draw on the skills and perspectives of a community of forecasters.

To do so, we’re partnering with Metaculus to run the Nuclear Risk Forecasting Tournament, hosted within a new Metaculus Forecasting Cause initiative focused on Flourishing Futures. Forecasts, comments, and essays produced for this tournament will inform and in some cases be featured within our other research, and some will be packaged for and directly shared with some key decision-makers.

The tournament will unfold across three rounds, with a mix of calibration, long-term, and fortified essay questions in the following topics:

Round 1 is opening on June 22. We would be excited for you to help in any of the following ways:

We also hope this tournament will provide a space for experienced forecasters to learn about and share insights on nuclear risks, for experts on nuclear risk to learn about and share insights on forecasting, for people with interest but less experience to start engaging and getting up to speed, and for fruitful connections to be made between these communities. We welcome you to join the tournament community.