Dangerous indifference

Today we are overloaded with threats. In the presidential campaign, in the news media and everywhere you look, warnings are issued faster that we can absorb them. In the flurry of worry, important problems get forgotten. In this election year, in which a Republican candidate has proposed establishing a colony on the Moon, here are five down-to-earth threats that we should be talking about now.

Nuclear waste

We slurp up energy. About 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States today comes from 104 nuclear power reactors. But we have irresponsibly postponed a solution about the waste and spent fuel. The U.S. currently has more than 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country; more than 2,000 tons are being produced each year. Nearly all of spent fuel is stored where it was generated, about three-quarters of it in shielded concrete pools and the remainder in dry casks above ground. A blue-ribbon commission has just finished two years of work on the thorny problem and concluded that a policy which has been troubled for decades "has now all but completely broken down." The panel, chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft declared:

"Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state–federal relations and public confidence in the federal government’s competence, and damaging to America’s standing in the world—not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security."

Antimicrobial resistance

In the 1940s, penicillin and the later discovery of streptomycin saved lives and alleviated suffering. But bacteria, viruses and other pathogens can become resistant to antimicrobial drugs by mutating. We've used these drugs so extensively that we now face a terrifying prospect. In the words of a U.S. government task force, drug resistance now "threatens to reverse the medical advances of the last half century." There is a scarcity of new antimicrobial drugs in the pipeline, which means that many more people may get sick and die because we have no way to fight the germs. The problem is especially evident in hospitals, where methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is creating huge new public health burdens. According to the World Health Organization, about 440,000 cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis emerge each year, causing 150,000 deaths. Extensively drug-resistant TB has been reported in 64 nations. And in the last few years, there have been very preliminary reports of a totally drug resistant tuberculosis. The government task force concluded, "There is a critical need for new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests to treat, prevent, and diagnose infections, including serious and life-threatening infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria."

Ballistic missile defense

Billions and billions of dollars have been spent by the United States in pursuit of Ronald Reagan's vision of ballistic missile defense, and more is to be spent in the years ahead. Yet we don't really know whether it works. As Dean A. Wilkening points out in the current issue of Survival, to be effective, a ballistic missile defense system must be able to protect a given area, and to find and destroy warheads on an incoming missile. Hit-to-kill has been demonstrated on the test range, once a target has been identified. But an aggressor can saturate a defense system by overwhelming it with objects that are or look like incoming warheads. This makes the success of the defense much more difficult.

Wilkening points out that an interceptor rocket needs to hit the target warhead at an accuracy of within several inches while traveling at three kilometers a second. And there are other imponderables: the defender's sensors can be jammed, or the missile defense itself can become a target. In the end, an aggressor's warhead might get through, making the umbrella rather leaky. While technology has improved over the decades, how many more billions of dollars are needed to create a technically effective ballistic missile defense, and is it really worth it? What is the missile threat we are defending against?

The United States is currently building a limited system to protect Europe, intended to defend against an Iranian missile. Russia is worried that a later phase of this program, at the end of this decade, could threaten its strategic forces. Talks on cooperation between Washington and Moscow have reached an impasse, for now. If the disagreement persists, it could threaten a breakdown in U.S.-Russian strategic arms control. Russia has already announced plans to build a giant new liquid-fueled ballistic missile--an ominous hint at what kind of arms race could be on the horizon. Cooperation with Russia now would be a lot more promising than a new competition.

We need to disconnect missile defense from the Reagan mythology that it can make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," and answer hard questions about the threat, and the technology.

Climate change

Our climate is slow to change -- if we alter it now with carbon dioxide emissions, it impacts the atmosphere for millennia. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute warns in a forthcoming paper with a number of colleagues that human-made gasses have already raised temperatures and "deleterious climate impacts are growing worldwide." He maintains that our continued determination to extract more and more fossil fuels could "push the climate system beyond tipping points such that amplifying feedbacks drive further climate change that is beyond humanity's control." He adds, "This situation raises profound moral issues in that young people, future generations, and nature, with no possibility of protecting their future well-being, will bear the principal consequences of actions and inactions of today's adults."

Yet, as Steven Cohen and Alison Miller point out in an essay published recently by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the issue is now stalled by partisan gridlock in the United States. They add:

"By its very nature, the climate problem is a tough political issue to bring to the policy agenda. The causes of the climate problem are everywhere; they can't be located, like a point source of pollution or a toxic waste dump can. The impacts of climate change are largely in the future, and they cannot be seen or smelled. The US political system, based as it is on places as well as people, will pay more attention to impacts on a specific location than those that are general--or, in the case of climate change, global."

Cyber conflict

The very essence of our well-being and prosperity is connectivity. Finance, medicine, education, science, news, national security and culture are all dependent on networks. But in recent years, the networks turned into a vast parallel universe of malicious activity. Attacks, intrusions, thefts, exploits, espionage and disruption are transnational and ubiquitous. Much of it is still hidden. Corporations do not want to admit they have been ransacked (and rarely report it to shareholders or regulators.) The U.S. government, too, stays mum about major cyber attacks. Corporate, government and military cyber security have been cast as intelligence matters—and kept secret.

A cyber war hasn’t happened yet, but a new arms race is taking shape with shadowy proxies and intensive espionage. It is less a classic competition between nations and more a scrum. The contestants change, rules hardly exist, and attacks are difficult to deter, trace or retaliate against. “A nuclear missile heading toward the United States is a little bit easier to detect than a cyber attack,” Gen. Keith Alexander, the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said at a conference recently. Today, he added, “everyone can be a cyber power. Hackers, terrorists, non-state actors and nation states—it will be hard to distinguish between them.”

The dangers are becoming more evident. The significance of the Stuxnet computer worm was that a carefully-designed cyber weapon was capable of crippling an industrial plant. What if the next version is aimed at an American hospital, or a power grid, or stock exchange that is the lifeblood of the economy? And how does a nation with a robust private sector that depends on networks respond to such threats? In the absence of any restraints, should the United States be competing with others to invent new offensive cyber arms? Do cyber weapons have any deterrence value? Or is there a danger they would backfire as others used the same against us?

What is to be done?

We need to start thinking clearly about every one of these confounding problems, which are wrapped up in science, security, politics, law, economics, engineering and more. The answers aren't simple, but we have plenty of data and good reason to unravel them, not to mention a big stake in the outcome. It is one thing to bemoan the trivial pursuits of presidential campaigns, but quite another to confront the biggest issues of our time.


Getty Images/Christopher Furlong