Forty-One Minutes to Save The World: Investing in Nuclear Security

 Ruins of Nagasaki, Japan. photo: Everett Historical/shutterstock

Ruins of Nagasaki, Japan. photo: Everett Historical/shutterstock

Forty-one minutes.

That’s how long it might take for a North Korean nuke to reach Washington, D.C. That’s less than an episode of the Handmaid’s Tale and, apparently, less than the time we spend eating all our daily meals. It’s also the amount of time that life as we know it would change forever.

The first—and, thankfully, only—time nuclear weapons were used in war was 73 years ago this week. On August 6 and August 9, the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 150,000 Japanese people instantly and another 100,000 in the aftermath, including through painful death from radiation. Today’s nuclear weapons are more than 3,000 times as powerful as those used in 1945.

You’d think that the escalating tensions with North Korea, Russia and China—all nuclear-weapons states and all U.S. adversaries—would have everyone investing their philanthropic dollars in nuclear issues.

Alarmingly, that’s far from the truth. Only $45.6 million per year is spent on nuclear issues. It may sound like a lot, but that’s only 13 percent of all peace and security philanthropy, which makes up less than 1 percent of total philanthropic giving. Put another way: Nuclear funding makes up 0.01 percent of all philanthropic giving in the United States.

Since nuclear weapons are indisputably one of the world’s greatest challenges—if not the greatest—why aren’t more funders invested in this issue?

One possible reason is that progress in reducing nuclear threats happens gradually over many decades, and demonstrating impact over that span of time is difficult. But many newer philanthropists (think: those in Silicon Valley) made their money in ventures that yielded a high and oftentimes immediate return on investment. Those of us looking to attract these new donors should be prepared to make the business case they’re used to seeing. We need to explain how important it is to tackle seemingly intractable and global threats; new philanthropists should follow in the footsteps of an earlier generation of philanthropists who committed to building and sustaining a peaceful international order. Today’s new philanthropists should strive to join this elite club and do so focused on nuclear challenges. After all, the world needs their help: Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are stockpiled across 14 countries, and we have enough fissile material to make tens of thousands more.

Another possible reason for the dearth of nuclear funding is its framing. Nuclear weapons are—and should be—frightening and overwhelming. We’re talking about the end of human existence, here; where does one even begin to chip away at this existential threat? But many new philanthropists made their money in society-changing, “moonshot” ways—like the internet, e-commerce, Facebook, and the shared economy—so we should encourage them to think as big and bold with their charity. 

The third challenge is that if nuclear security is done right, few will ever know. How do you prove a negative? How do you prove that you’ve prevented nuclear war or a nuclear terrorist attack? When you can’t tell or show stories of success, it’s hard to attract funding to a cause.

Finally, unlike education, healthcare, or the arts, nuclear issues aren’t ones your average American experiences in their daily lives. Though a nuclear war could kill millions and fundamentally change society as we know it, it’s all theoretical. How can we relate to this? How can we connect to something so horrific—yet so unimaginable—when there are other more tangible, “real life” things we all need to worry about? Through innovative efforts like OutriderNSquare, or The Bomb, the nuclear community has begun to address this challenge, but much more needs to be done to connect to today’s citizens.

Thankfully, there is a small and mighty cadre of funders who care about nuclear issues and can serve as thought partners to new philanthropists. They have decades of hard-won lessons learned from funding research, public education, congressional engagement, and local activism. They know their investments are long-term and they are ready to share their philanthropic strategic patience models with others. It may seem unsexy at first glance, but this approach has a hefty set of recent wins under its belt, including ICAN’s 2017 Nobel Peace Prize; the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which resulted in the U.S. and Russia decreasing their nuclear warheads and launchers by hundreds; and four global nuclear security summits, which encouraged more than a dozen countries to eliminate all weapons-usable material from their soil.

So the next time you watch an episode of the Handmaid’s Tale on your Smart TV, you can thank the nuclear funders. And if you’re one of the Silicon Valley innovators who gave us this amazing technology, you should think of throwing your money into the ring to join them.

Alexandra I. Toma is Executive Director of the Peace and Security Funders Group, a network of 63 funders collaborating on a range of national security, peace, and conflict issues, including nuclear.