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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Face of Mass Destruction


The Changing Face of Mass Destruction

By Nora N. Khan

Living in the 21st-century global pantheon means we live alongside unprecedented existential risks, which can come from above and below, from outside and from within. Scientists, scholars, policymakers, defense strategists, risk analysts and experts in nearly every field have been organizing themselves around the issue of looming catastrophe. In this spirit, let’s take a clear-headed look at the nuclear, chemical, biological, and ecological perils that might befall us in the not-too-distant future.
The cover of The Boston Globe’s Business Section recently described think tanks devoted to predicting technological doomsday scenarios that might close out the Anthropocene. They included the Pardee Center for the Study for the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, which looks at global climate change, and the Future of Life Institute—funded in part by Elon Musk—which focuses on nuclear weaponization, biotechnology, and military AI. The Global Catastrophe Risk Institute, based in cities around the world, is comprised of a worldwide network of scholars and risk analysts thinking through threats to human civilization.
Last Month,  15,000 of the world’s premier AI researchers and scientists signed a letter, drafted by FLI, that urged for an international ban on efficient autonomous weapons. Such weapons could qualify as their own category of WMDs, unsettle global stability, and lead to an all-out arms race.
Another group, The Future Society at Harvard Kennedy School, hopes to explore technology's immediate impact on existing social contracts. There's no innovation that can't be politicized, something to remember as biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and cognitive science continue to alter the fundamentals of our brains, bodies, devices and environs. Speaking to Hopes&Fears, Patrick Daniel, its co-founder, is tempered in his predictions: "Like the Chinese word for 'crisis' (weiji), technology has a dual meaning: it represents both risk and opportunity. While it will solve many problems and offer extraordinary growth, at the same time, we must also acknowledge its dangers." As a society, Daniel adds, "we need to strike a balance, being neither fearful of the risks nor greedy about the opportunities."
Naturally, scholars are more concerned about the risks. The past few decades have seen a rise in the number of nuclear weapons states, and today, Francesca Giovannini, a specialist in global security and international affairs, tells Hopes&Fears, "the international community is facing severe challenges. The globalization of terrorism, the resurgence of geopolitical rivalries, and the intensification of economic shocks in the most vulnerable countries are all simultaneously affecting global peace and security. Most pressing of all, however, is the enduring presence of nuclear weapons—and the rapid and worrisome weakening of the global nuclear order."
Add to this that the single biggest threat to our survival may come not from a one-off nuclear or ecological event, but as one anonymous diplomacy and defense strategist speculates, as a slow process of collective mental colonization (think: painless apparatuses that have the capability to infiltrate our networked bodies and minds virtually undetected). The increased prostheticization and device-dependence of human beings leaves us increasingly open to civilian attacks by rogue cyber-hacking collectives or state-sponsored entities.
Narratives of the future are often framed in terms of mass destruction. In his recent piece on post-apocalyptic simplification, Ben Woodard argues that contemporary thought has a "general lack of a concept of futurity, of any sense of a future that is not totalitarian [or] structurally disastrous." Such projections, usually split between nuclear war and technological dystopia, reflect an "odd combination of preparatory eschatology and a total removal from the political or environmental present." These imagined futurescapes allow for a disconnect, Woodard concludes, that favor fantasies in which heroes save civilization and worlds in which we can start anew, purged of the geopolitical imbroglio we’re potentially in.
But this hero-and-villain dichotomy can't possibly capture an atomic missile deployed from space, an exploding glacier lake, or a pathogenic virus released into the general population. These scenarios would be brought about by a complicated mesh of converging political, cultural and economic factors in which there is no single salvation or solution.
Nuclear weapons
Nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological and explosive weapons are considered the major categories of WMDs. Of all these, it is perhaps the first that's most inscribed in our collective consciousness thanks to the news and movie industries. The scene Giovannini describes is sobering: there are an estimated 16,732 nuclear weapons in the world, distributed among nine countries. About 90% of these are in the United States and Russia alone. "The global nuclear order today rests in a precarious balance; chances of accidental launch owing to a miscommunication or misperception are heightened," she says. Experts say that in the next 70 years, either an accident or attack to a nuclear facility are likely scenarios. Complicating the situation, the "nuclear institutions, which once were created to advance the cause of nuclear reduction, have faced severe paralysis," Giovannini adds. "The Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been, de facto, in an institutional stalemate for over 30 years. The media remains silent on this topic, but it is indispensable that we begin a new conversation on nuclear weapons, and raise awareness, particularly among young people." What forms do they take?
A nuclear warhead is typically a fission bomb, inside of which a super-dense mass of plutonium or uranium is concentrated. Fission weapons are the only type to be used in warfare. There is a fusion, or hydrogen, bomb, which is difficult to create and deploy (only a few countries have been able to detonate one with any success). A neutron bomb has the insidious quality of eliminating human life while, in many cases, leaving property intact. A boosted fission weapon uses some fusion fuel to increase the fission reaction's rate and yield. A developed industrial nation with appropriate infrastructure can build thermonuclear arms. Providing an alternative to the Cold War era's high-yield "strategic" nuclear weapons are today's lower-yield "tactical" variants, which have changed the landscape considerably. Medium-grade radiological weapons also make the list.
Who has them?
Other than the United States and Russia, China, Pakistan, Israel, India France, the United Kingdom, North Korea and even South Africa are all known to have nuclear arsenals. The varying degrees of development among these countries, along with the ever changing face—or facelessness—of terrorism, are causes for concern. There is a real fear of "loose nukes," or Soviet Union-era bombs sold on the black market. In short, the less stable the government, the more tenuous the peace.
There's also the attendant issue of peaceful nuclear energy use: nuclear reactors are either already present or rapidly being built in India, China, Russia, South Korea and the UAE, along with over a dozen other countries. Iran's nuclear program, of course, is subject of intense speculation. In the future, important fields will include the monitoring of emergent civilian nuclear programs and the push toward international management of fissile material use.
How are they managed?
That the U.S. and Russia are renewing their rivalry is "worrisome," says Giovannini. She points out that "cooperation and dialogue between the two countries on critical issues, including nuclear weapons, has been suspended, along with the prospect for further arms control negotiations in the future." Further, that the 2015 review conference of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) "closed without even a consensus statement … reveals deepening differences among various nuclear groups on issues related to non-proliferation and the rights of countries to access nuclear technology for peaceful use." States without nuclear capability see an "enduring injustice within the treaty," a conflict between the weaponized haves and have-nots; they perceive a basic "unwillingness of nuclear weapons states to reduce and dismantle their nuclear arsenal," which contributes to a deepening of the rift.
Asked about the nuclear future, the anoymous source offered some hopeful, possibly reassuring insights. "There are a tremendous amount of people and resources to keep those genies in a bottle," the source said, expressing confidence that new technological evolutions, such as ballistic missile defenses that are able to track and destroy weapons, "will only get better." Nuclear terrorism has "profound consequences for the aggressor," after all. If a terrorist group were to detonate a device to render downtown Manhattan unliveable for the next 50 or 60 years, the responsible party would experience "incredibly severe consequences." The impasses of mutually-assured destruction that have helped in practicing restraint so far may just continue to hold.
Chemical warfare
Chemical warfare agents—nerve, blister, blood, pulmonary and nettle—come in many forms: as gaseous vapors, aerosol sprays, or liquid spills. Lewisite, Ricin, Mustard Gas, Sarin, Phosgene, Chlorine and Malathion are just some of the most recognizable names on the list. Some of these substances are so lethal, even in trace quantities, that many countries have a strict ban on their production.
Sarin is perhaps the most infamous: an odorless colorless nerve agent, it causes death within minutes. It was used in the infamous Aum Shinriko attack in Japan in 1994, in the Tokyo subway a year later, and most recently in the Syrian civil war (attacks during which, it is estimated, anywhere between 300 and 1,700 people died).
The use of chemical weapons is usually discussed as a potential tool of terrorism, but talk of it is relatively absent from the U.S. policy scene. Turns out, it's extremely hard to scale a chemical attack into mass-casualty. However, the chemical industry’s globalization and the current nature of asymmetric, decentralized warfare may change this fact. Chemical agents are said to be present in North Korea, Israel, Egypt, Burma, China, and of course, Syria.
Nervous intrigue swirls around Russia's production of Novichoks, a line of compounds that can be concealed in commercial chemical plants without detection. Plants themselves are at risk, as security personnel are not always impermeable. Hazmat incidents, like the 1984 Bhopal Union Carbide chemical cloud, which killed 2,500 immediately and an estimated 16,000 in the years following, prove the scale of devastation inherent in a chemical plant attack.
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