Facing Existential Risk: How the U.S. Survived the Atom Bomb and the Ozone Hole

06/01/2012 01:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2012

In this project I examine the history behind American perception of human extinction. I explore how existential risk has shaped foreign policy by tracing the domestic debate over nuclear war and ozone depletion. I conclude that a collective belief that either risk would end the human race pushed the U.S. to cooperate instead of pursuing relative gains. (1)

Six months before the first nuclear detonation, Robert Oppenheimer commissioned a thorough study into the theory that splitting the atom would cause a thermonuclear chain reaction to expand "to all parts of the atmosphere." (2) While the air didn't light on fire, the Trinity test set in motion a long process of collective realization in the power of human ingenuity. As the arms race took off, scientists warned of militarizing into extinction.

The bomb's destructive power shocked leaders and civilians alike, but it did not remove the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Few people believed a nuclear world war was survivable, and the US sought protection through deterrence. The Strategic Air Command designed a massive retaliatory force capable incinerating the entire Communist bloc in hours.

By the late 1950s, it was relatively well understood that an "atomic war fought with greatly perfected weapons and pushed by the utmost determination will endanger the survival of man." (3) Outspoken critics highlighted the insanity of a national security strategy based on imminent global suicide, and as Kennedy looked towards the Presidency, a strong movement to end the arms race emerged.

Aware of the largely unknown effects of nuclear war, President Kennedy rejected the urge to take advantage of America's massive nuclear superiority over the U.S.S.R. while he had the chance. He recognized that any direct conflict would jeopardize global environmental systems -- air, water, soil -- the U.S. depended on for survival.

The possibility of extinction through war caused Kennedy to resist force in the face of a belligerent threat to U.S. national security. When the CIA discovered nuclear warheads in Cuba, the President stood up to the immense challenge of removing the missiles without increasing the unacceptable risk of atomic conflict with the Soviet Union. Despite substantial domestic pressure to confront the U.S.S.R., he resolved to stall his war machine and pursue diplomacy until bombs fell on the White House. The President's perception of the stakes of the crisis, and his responsibility for its outcome, drove him to avoid the "final failure" at all costs. (4)

In a context of extremely high military tension, Kennedy and Khrushchev found common ground in mitigating the possibility of atomic apocalypse. Their mutual belief that nuclear war was not survivable led to one of the most profound empathic breakthroughs in human history. As they stepped back from the brink, they were painfully aware of the collective hazard posed by nuclear weapon and started their countries down a long road towards nuclear disarmament. The Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963 ended the practice of testing nuclear weapons aboveground, under water or in space, and the two capitols installed a direct telephone line to

communicate in an emergency.

The world's brush with nuclear extinction ushered in a new era of open investigation into human impact on the environment. Civil atmospheric science paved the way to a clear factual understanding of the stratosphere, and early research confirmed the ozone layer's vital role in protecting living organisms from lethal UV radiation. Amidst growing concern for global environmental degradation, the federal government sponsored investigations into the effects of supersonic transport (SST). In a wave of discoveries, scientists proved that compounds released from SSTs, space shuttles, nuclear weapons and aerosol cans destroyed the ozone layer, increasing human exposure to high-intensity UV rays and ultimately sterilizing of the earth's surface. Despite industry efforts to obscure scientific consensus, the public immediately recognized ozone depletion as an existential risk. Feeling accountable for a future of ecological chaos, consumers changed their behavior, and the EPA eliminated CFCs in aerosol spray cans. The domestic response to the CFC threat drove the U.S. government to construct an international framework capable of protecting the stratosphere from inadvertent destruction.

Ozone depletion was proof of earth's fragility, highlighting the urgent need for international dialogue and cooperation to mitigate catastrophe. Its discovery added evidence to the long held truths from traditional security disciplines, breaking down the logic of the arms race with photochemistry and atmospheric physics. Initial ozone negotiations stalled, but the ozone hole over Antarctica removed any doubt that CFCs were a global existential threat. With support from the U.S., Canada, and select European allies, the world's nations designed and implemented the Montreal Protocol.

A strong belief in the irreversible consequences of unilateralism drove interstate cooperation in the face of political and economic opposition. American concern for the long-term effects of ozone depletion led to the "single most successful international agreement to date."(5)

The U.S. response to nuclear war and ozone depletion is the story of how humans realized they could create the conditions for their own extinction, and how that knowledge affected the behavior of countries at a global scale. These two case studies in risk perception inform the debate and action around climate change.

U.S. perception of climate change has only recently begun to take on the existential quality of nuclear war and ozone depletion. Its latency as an urgent public concern reflects the difficulty of designing global policies in the face of scientific uncertainty and economic resistance. Carbon emissions are central to America's industry, infrastructure, and standard of living. Climate change also remains a more abstract risk than ozone depletion or nuclear war, appearing to exist much farther into the future, with less concrete consequences for U.S. wellbeing.

However, our perceptions do not change physics. The inevitable consequences of ignoring environmental degradation will bring the U.S. back to the brink, and only time will tell if we rise to the challenge. So far, the U.S. has taken preventative action before tipping the world towards chaos. The question, then, is whether our collective process of realization will be fast enough, and our solutions smart enough to leave our posterity a world they in which they can flourish.


(1) An existential risk is "one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential." Nick Bostrom. "Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards." Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, March 2002

(2) Edward Teller, Emil Konopinski and C. Marvin. "LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs." 1945 (Declassified July 30, 1979)

(3) Edward Teller. "How Dangerous Are Atomic Weapons?" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 3 (2) (February 1947).

(4) Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow. The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy Vol. 2, The Great Crisis. (W. W. Norton: New York, 2001). Pg. 541.

(5) Kofi Annan. Quoted in "International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer: 16 September." The United Nations.