As a result of my Citation Laureate award and the associated write-up in the local paper, I’ve been asked to give some thought to worst-case scenarios for a range of issues, some global and some specific to Brisbane. What I’ve written so far is very rough, so I’d appreciate comments, useful links and so on. My first scenario deals with security and is, in a sense, optimistic. The plausible worst case scenario now isn’t nearly as bad as the one I grew up with – a thermonuclear war between Russia and the West
The worst case possibility facing the world as a whole is that of a nuclear war. A thermonuclear war between Russia and the West could still arise by accident, but the likelihood of such a catastrophe has declined greatly. The period of highest risk was probably that leading up to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In view of what we now know about such possibilities as nuclear winter, it seems likely that a full-scale nuclear war would have wiped out the human race. All the other risks we face pale into insignificance.
The biggest current danger is that the continuing tension between India and Pakistan might erupt into a nuclear war. Other nuclear-armed powers include North Korea and (presumably) Israel.
A further serious risk is that of terrorists obtaining and using nuclear weapons. Although no terrorist group appears to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, there’s a significant risk that they might obtain one from Pakistan or North Korea. And unlike national governments, there are plenty of terrorists who would be keen to use a nuclear weapon if they could.
By contrast with the nuclear risk, the actual risk posed by other forms of terrorist attack, whether using ‘conventional’ methods, chemical and biological weapons or ‘dirty’ radioactive devices are quite small. A typical middle-aged Australian faces a risk of death, in any given year, somewhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 200.
A terrorist attack on the scale of the Madrid atrocity every year would raise this risk by a factor of about 1 in 10000. That is, it would be insignificant, in terms of risk of death, when compared with the risks we face every day from accidents, heart attacks and so on. Even an attack on the scale of September 11 would have only a marginal impact on this measure. This is not to say that we should ignore the threat of terrorism. But consideration of worst case scenarios suggests we should be looking a lot harder at the possible leakage of nuclear weapons and that we not let ourselves be panicked by the threat of terrorism in general.