A one-on-one with Thomas Schelling

A few weeks ago I had the chance to sit down and talk with Prof. Thomas C. Schelling, 2005 Nobel Laureate for Economics when he was in Oxford to deliver a talk on nuclear proliferation. The personal bits of the interview about his career and experienceswere written up for a feature-length piece for the Oxford Student, the student newspaper that I write for regularly, and is attached here: Schelling interview.

But I also had the chance to ask him about a few more substantive questions, and his thoughts on nuclear weapons, climate change and geoengineering appear here:

Credit: Nick Chan, 2009

On nuclear waeapons:

NC: You spoke extensively about the nuclear taboo and the kind of tradition that’s developed up, but towards the end, when you were talking about Iran, North Korea and non-state actors, you raised issues about deterrence. And it seemed to me that the two are different sets of ideas that almost compete to explain 60 years without nuclear weapons. Do you see them as competing explanations between deterrence and a moral tradition (or some kind of psychological commitment to non-use)?

TS: I don’t see any contradiction, I think North Korea and Iran both have reason to worry about being attacked, and being attacked by countries much more powerful than they are. And I think it’s quite reasonable to think that if they have a few nuclear weapons that they could deliver, then it’s unlikely that Israel or the United States, or whoever they’re afraid of would attack them. So I think that they could probably believe that nuclear weapons would provide them some security. I don’t want them to get nuclear weapons, but I could understand that it is not unreasonable for them to want nuclear weapons.

NC: Should they get them, will this tradition that you’ve described end up restraining them in the same way, that kind of fear?

TS: The tradition that I talked about, I think, inhibited countries with nuclear weapons from using them on countries that didn’t have them. When the UK went to war with Argentina to defend the Falklands, the UK didn’t have to worry about nuclear retaliation if they used nuclear weapons, and when the US was in Vietnam they didn’t have to worry about North Vietnam using nuclear weapons in retaliation. I think North Korea probably worries mainly about the US, concievably about China, both of whom have nuclear weapons in much greater quantities than they would ever get. I think their inhibition would not be the taboo that I mentioned, but a recognition that they could be obliterated as a country. Iran would very much like to have a nuclear weapon to keep Israel from attacking, but I think the reason they wouldn’t want to use an nuclear weapon against Israel besides self-defense would be the recognition that Israel would have so many nuclear weapons that it could do whatever it wanted with Iran.

NC: Does this – from what I understand – this sort of describe a dynamic about proliferation, if a nuclear weapon state ever ends up threatening a non-nuclear weapon state that kind of, potentially leads to that non nuclear weapon-armed state wanting nuclear weapons, and the spread of weapons, in an ever-widening circle?

TS: I think that’s reasonable. I think North Korea is the one proliferating nation that has already suffered a war with the US; it was almost 60 years ago, but they have reason to think that the US might again attack them. I don’t think, but I can’t be sure, that they want to be free to invade South Korea, and use their nuclear weapons to keep the US from participating. If South Korea were to be invaded again, I think the US wouldn’t hesitate to respond with conventional military force, not expecting NK to introduce nuclear weapons.

NC: So since the cases that you’ve described are basically about a nuclear weapon-armed state facing off against a non-nuclear weapon state, if the matchup ends up becoming a nuclear weapon-armed and nuclear weapon-armed state, that’s when the chips are down?

TS: That’s a different situation. The relationship between the US and Soviet Union, was not so much inhibited by a taboo, but each knew that the other could retaliate in a devastating way. I have a hunch that India and Pakistan may feel that they’re in a situation similar to what the US and Soviet Union were in together. India and Pakistan have lots of people who have been thinking about nuclear weapons policy for years and years. I used to go to the annual IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] meeting, very often here in Oxford or Cambridge, and the Indian and Pakistanis were always well represented, and as sophisticated as the Americans, Germans, British or Japanese. I think they understand and have always understood that neither wants to be without nuclear weapons if the other have them, and once they both have them, that neither have any expectation that the other side will introduce them. It’ll be interesting if India and Pakistan have another war, to see if they withold nuclear weapons.

On Copenhagen:

NC: If we can go down that road – do you have any expectations, not even high expectations, as to what might lie beyond, as for collective agreement on anything?

TS: I don’t exactly know what’s going on in terms of closed-door negotiations, getting ready for Copenhagen. My impression is that people expect something to happen in Copenhagen, and I tend to believe that unless there are months of negotiations to reach a climax in Copenhagen, I don’t think that there’s anything ready to agree on. I don’t even know what the US plans to do, and it looks as if Barack Obama is going to Copenhagen, the question of who he will take with him. I don’t know of any plans for Congress to be part of the US team. I imagine he would take the Secretaries of Energy and State and his Science Advisor, but he can’t commit to anything because he can’t commit the Senate to ratify. And I think if he takes both a Democratic and Republican senator with him, that will look serious, if he wants them to be partners, because the President can sign a treaty but needs the Senate to ratify it. If he takes one Democrat and Republican with him, that will make it looks serious, but I don’t think that they can agree to the text of any kind of treaty. To negotiate the text would require weeks, if not months of careful negotiation. And I don’t think that that kind of negotiation has gone on.

NC: Is a kind of agreement in the Senate, whether Waxman-Markey, or other bill, a necessary precondition?

TS: Whether it’s a necessary precondition I don’t know, but it would be a great help if one of the climate bills gets agreed on by the House and Senate and gets signed by the President, but I don’t think that there’s time for that to happen. I don’t think that Congress is going to feel pressured by the Copenhagen schedule, and they’ll do it their own way, but it would be a great help. Waxman-Markey for example, doesn’t really commit the US to anything quantitative, and most people seem to think that want they want to come out of Copenhagen, a bit like Kyoto, is quantitative commitments. What I think is more likely to come out is an agreement that 2C of additional temperature rise is the limit or the target to be approached.

I think that that is a useless thing, that is, if 2C is the ultimate limit, that towards the end of the century we shouldn’t go any farther beyond that. No-one will know ten, twenty years from now if we’re on target. The change in temperature is subject to very great delays, because you can’t get the atmospheric temperature up until the temperature of the ocean surface goes up, because the oceans act like a great cooling reservoir, and keep the air cool, and therefore, with this thermal inertia the estimate still is is that the ocean cooling will hold back the atmospheric warming by about 20 years. So if it gets to 2050, and someone asks how we are doing relative to a 2C limit, the answer may be that we just don’t know. It’ll be very complicated, to estimate from the ocean temperature combined with air temperature, if we’re beyond the 2C mark already.

The only thing the 2C target has in its favour is that it’s a round number. There really isn’t any scientific basis to it; if it was then it’d be something more like 2.15, and it was just a popular notion that they have to find some kind of limit, and there isn’t any kind of scientific basis for it.

On geoengineering:

NC : As we go down this road in 20-30 years, there’s a paper I read by you on geoengineering; obviously as we approach the negotiation crunch time, and as the science becomes more and more apparent around us, more attention is being paid to geoengineering. Is that something that you see world leaders being able to take it seriously?

TS; Geoengineering has come out of the closet in the last few years, there was a conference in Copenhagen six months ago, a big conference on climate change, and a friend of mine at Stanford, Ken Caldeira, who had conducted a large conference of 50 scientists in California a year or so ago, he organized a session on geoengineering, and it drew an audience of 40,50 people, not a big audience, but this is beginning to get a lot of attention. There is an activity [that I am involved in] called the Copenhagen Consensus; there was a small Copenhagen Consensus meeting in Washington a few months ago, and we recommended that some experiments take place to find out what kind of geoengineering might work, what the side effects will be and whether there are any really dangerous side effects. I don’t think this is likely to get discussed at Copenhagen in December, however.

One of my concerns is that its important that there are tests, for example, most likely to launch sulfur particles into the stratosphere, and see if there is a measurable effect, and see if there an effect on incoming [solar] radiation. My concern is that if anything like that is to be done, I want to it be organized internationally in a responsible way, because it is important to establish that any such activity has to be legitimized by some international agreement; one of the things about geoengineering, is that if effective, it is likely to be so cheap, there are lots of individual countries that could afford to do it:d China could do it, the US could do it, Germany could do it, Russia could do it. I think it would be unfortunate if there were to be a big dispute about whether to do it, and some country, maybe the US went ahead and did it unilaterally. I think that would be a dangerous result internationally. If there is experimenting, the way the experiment is decided on may be a powerful precedent for a later decision on how to do it. So I would like to see this responsibly managed.

NC: Do you see a kind of parallel with nuclear weapons, in terms of an asymmetric effect? Because it is relatively cheap, whether absorbing carbon dioxide or shielding solar radiation?

TS: I think the only parallel is that it’s important that there be some kind of mechanism for international agreement. It’s a little like nuclear proliferation in the sense that if an individual nation like Iran wanted to go ahead and get nuclear weapons, it’s important to try to get Iran to participate in an agreement according to which Egypt, South Africa, Indonesia and other countries are going to say ‘we’re not going to get nuclear weapons, we think it’s important that you participate with us in abstaining.’

I think when the time comes, it may be important if there are some nations that say, ‘all of our efforts aren’t sufficient, we’d better initiate geoengineeing’. I think it’s important that there not be a huge dispute with India deciding to engage in geoengineering, and maybe Russia deciding to go ahead, and the US opposed to it. The question then is what prevents one or two or three nations from going ahead and engaging with it. Does it become even a military crisis? In that 1996 article, at the end I mentioned an analogy: suppose it turns out that we learnt how to prevent hurricanes. Hurricanes are a threat to the Philippines, but which produces rainfall all over southern China, important for growing crops. If there was an approaching hurricane, if the Philippines decided that they were going to go out and stop the hurricane, then the Chinese were to decide that they were going to go out and stop the Filipinos, that’s sort of an analogy as to what geoengineering would be like

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2 thoughts on “A one-on-one with Thomas Schelling

  1. Thank you for this, Nick.
    I was wondering if it would be ok for you if we used your photo of Schelling on our website (nwp.ilpi.org). With your credits on it, of course. It is one of the better photos of him that i have seen.

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