Debate Page: Winter-safe deterrence: The risk of nuclear winter and its challenge to deterrence

This page documents the debate surrounding my article Winter-safe deterrence: The risk of nuclear winter and its challenge to deterrence.

Winter-safe deterrence is an inherently controversial concept. The risk of nuclear winter suggests that there should be far fewer nuclear weapons in the world. Winter-safe deterrence is controversial because it asks "OK, so what other weapons should be used for deterrence instead?" Ideally, states would not feel the need to deter each other with threats of massive destruction. Likewise, we should try to get states to change their minds so that they no longer feel that need. Meanwhile, however, it is worth considering which weapons would be best to use, as abhorrent of a task as that is. This is the purpose of my winter-safe deterrence paper.

I am grateful that my paper has sparked an energetic and thoughtful debate. Many people have offered ideas and perspectives, bringing insight that easily exceeds what I could accomplish on my own. This is a good example of how open discussion of ideas can advance progress. I for one have changed my own thinking on winter-safe deterrence in light of the debate. In particular, whereas my initial paper suggested that non-contagious biological weapons held promise for a role in winter-safe deterrence, the subsequent debate has produced several reasons why they are not so promising after all.

Unfortunately, the tone of the debate was not always collegial, especially on the initial social media reaction. It is nothing new for online conversations to be harsh, but it is regrettable nonetheless. Academics have a long tradition of disagreeing agreeably, so we should be role models for online communication. A good example of agreeable disagreement is On Nuclear Alternatives by Tom Inglesby of the UPMC Center for Health Security. Such collegiality is especially important in debates about controversial ideas like winter-safe deterrence. If controversial ideas are met with harsh reactions, then people will stick to ideas that are safer and less innovative, and society could miss out on important solutions to major global problems.

With that said, here is a summary of the debate:

The initial Bulletin column

* 9 March 2015: Deterrence, without nuclear winter, my initial summary of the article in a column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This summary helped spark the debate.

Early reactions to the Bulletin column

* Twitter discussion threads including here, here, & here.

* 10 March 2015: Ploughshares Early Warning, which gave it the playful title 'Cloudy with a chance of radiation'

* 11 March 2015: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Why avoiding a nuclear winter shouldn’t mean a return to biological weapons by Kathryn McLaughlin of Biosecu.re. McLaughlin (Twitter: @TyphoidMary__) and Piers Millett (Twitter: @pdmillett) of Biosecu.re probably deserve the most credit in sparking the social media conversation. I'm glad to have gotten to know them from this.

* 13 March 2015: Or How I Can’t Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Bugs by Brett Edwards of the Biochemical Security 2030 Project at the University of Bath. This post compiles the early reactions. Edwards remained a thoughtful and active participant throughout the debate.

* 14 March 2015: On Nuclear Alternatives by Tom Inglesby, CEO and Director of the UPMC Center for Health Security; published at the UPMC CHS blog Bifurcated Needle. When the winter-safe deterrence debate took off, by coincidence I was at a workshop of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, which is hosted by UPMC CHS. This caused some confusion, with people thinking winter-safe deterrence was a CHS idea, when in fact it is completely separate.

* 15 March 2015: Nuclear outrage by Jean Pascal Zanders, independent researcher & consultant; published in The Trench.

The Bulletin roundtable

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists hosted a roundtable discussion The winter-safe deterrence debate with written comments by several leading experts and replies from me:

* 18 March 2015: The myth of biological weapons as the poor man’s atomic bomb by Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University

* 19 March 2015: The biological weapons ban increases US security by Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security and Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health

* 19 March 2015: The "false allure" of biological weapons deterrence by Brett Edwards, Biochemical Security 2030 Project at the University of Bath

* 19 March 2015: Bringing a knife to a gunfight: biological weapons as deterrents in a nuclear-armed world by Martin Furmanski, medical doctor and medical historian

* 20 March 2015: Bioweapons not an alternative to nuclear weapons by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University

* 20 March 2015: On winter-safe deterrence and biological weapons by Seth Baum

* 27 March 2015: Physics favors deterrence; biology doesn't by Gregory D. Koblentz

* 27 March 2015: Deterring conflict, getting to zero by Gigi Kwik Gronvall

* 30 March 2015: Testing Bioweapons: the Catch-22 by Martin Furmanski

* 30 March 2015: Technological advance, proliferation potential, and the unsuitability of bioweapons as a deterrent by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

* 2 April 2015: On winter-safe deterrence and interdisciplinary research by Seth Baum

Additional discussions

* 20 March 2015: Tinkering around the edges – A reply to the winter-safe deterrence debate by Kai Ilchmann, Associate Professor at IRI PUC-Rio (Instituto de Relações Internacionais at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro); post published by the Biochemical Security 2030 Project at the University of Bath

* 24 March 2015: Sounding the toxin by Gwyn Winfield, Editorial Director at CBRNe World; published at CBRNe World

* 25 March 2015: Winter-safe Deterrence and the Problem of Hardware AND Software by Sascha Sauerteig, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Bath; post published by the Biochemical Security 2030 Project at the University of Bath

* 26 March 2015: Happy birthday to the bioweapons convention by James Revill and Caitríona McLeish, published in The Guardian's Political Science (politics of science and technology) blog. Revill is a research fellow and McLeish a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. This article discusses winter-safe deterrence in the context of the 40th anniversary of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, arguing that the BTWC should survive the winter-safe deterrence debate. I agree, and I further hope that international treaties are not so fragile as to fall to the mere publication of new ideas. I do wish I knew in advance that the BWTC 40th anniversary was coming up, as I would have phrased things differently. Hopefully the BWTC will have another 40 years!

* 26 March 2015: Winter-Safe Deterrence and the Biological Weapons Debate, a podcast hosted by the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, with speakers Kathryn McLaughlin and myself.

The Contemporary Security Policy symposium

Contemporary Security Policy hosted a symposium on winter-safe deterrence featuring in-depth discussions from several leading security studies scholars:

* The winter safe deterrence debate by Aaron Karp & Regina Karp, the Contemporary Security Policy editors and Old Dominion University Political Science

* Discontent with winter-safe deterrence by Christian Enemark, Reader in Global Health and International Politics at Aberystwyth University

* Denying disarmament by Jean Pascal Zanders, independent researcher & consultant

* Nuclear winter-safe and sound in the snow globe by Patricia Lewis Research Director of International Security at Chatham House

* Winter-safe deterrence as a practical contribution to reducing nuclear winter risk: A reply by Seth D. Baum

Additional contributions to the Contemporary Security Policy symposium are not yet available.

Created 1 Jul 2015 * Updated 14 Jul 2015