Unchecked Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons Modernization Moves 'Doomsday Clock' Two Minutes Closer to Midnight

Posted Jan. 28, 2015

MP3 Interview with Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, conducted by Scott Harris


In 1945, a group of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Two years later, the publication created the "Doomsday Clock," “using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The Bulletin’s Security Board, which includes 17 Nobel Laureates, makes the decision on when to move the Doomsday clock’s minute hand forward or backward.

In an announcement made on Jan. 22, the Bulletin moved the doomsday clock two minutes forward, to where it now stands at just three minutes before midnight, or world-wide catastrophe. The group cited two critical issues: unchecked climate change and global nuclear weapons modernization as the basis for their decision. The shift of the Doomsday Clock hands to three minutes to midnight is the first such adjustment to be made in the past three years.

The Bulletin's statement read in part, “In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who discusses her group’s message of warning that was directly linked to the decision to move the "Doomsday Clock" forward two minutes.

KENNETTE BENEDICT: We talk about the state of the world every time we meet twice a year, and take the clock extremely seriously, I'll tell you. I mean, I know that it seems a simple design, it surely is simple and that way it's very powerful. But the scientists on this board do make any changes lightly. They include scientists who have worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from the Scripps oceanographic institute, from the Stockholm Environment Institute. We have physicists from India and from Princeton. We have people who have worked in the government and the intelligence community on issues of national security, especially nuclear weapons.

This year, I think they were particularly taken with not only the IPCC report, which was not very encouraging, that is, climate change is accelerating. We also heard from Richard Somerville about the Antarctic glacial melt and one of his colleagues published a paper last May, a glaciologist who's working there for a long time who said essentially that one of the major fields there is melting there and there's no way to stop it, and when that goes we will have three feet sea level rise. Doesn't sound like a lot, but if you're living on a coastline, you can imagine what three feet higher water would do. And it would mean that some of the islands that are already threatened by rising sea levels will surely just go under. Some island nations will be gone.

And so, there's a sense that there are things are happening even faster than the climate scientists had originally predicted. And I think that was a bit alarming to many. The other things that we talked about were the state of nuclear arsenals in the world. We published something called "The Nuclear Notebook," which has estimates of the nuclear arsenals of countries around the world. These numbers are state secrets, so we can't know for sure, but these are really the best estimates that anyone has been able to come up with.

And we still have 16,300 nuclear weapons, most of them in the United States and Russia, and we've been seeing a slowing of the dismantling, especially in the last year or so, the U.S.-Russian relationship is a bit tattered, you might say, even before the Ukraine crisis – Russia's taking of Crimea – things were not going terribly well. And we've now just heard that the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, which has been happening for the last 25 years, to jointly dismantle our weapons is really stalled.

We're also seeing modernization of weapons, and you know, a lot of people might think "Oh well, that's good, you know, because then they'll be safer and more reliable." And there's some truth to that. But what may look like a simple modernization, to other countries might look like a buildup. For instance, we're very worried about China's modernization program. Many people think that it's really a cover for developing more lethal and maybe even more weapons. And so when the people look at the United States and its also "modernizing program," they have the same fears and thoughts. And so we begin to get into a kind of cycle of thinking, "oh well, they're modernizing, we better do more, too." And that's the beginning, really of another nuclear arms race.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Kennette, before we say goodnight, the important part of this report, of course, and the reason for the Doomsday Clock primarily is to alert and raise consciousness about the dangers facing our country and the world. Please review for our audience some of the recommendations that were in this report that accompanied the movement of the Doomsday Clock forward.

KENNETTE BENEDICT: Yeah, there are kind of simple recommendations, but obviously will take a lot to accomplish. First, getting some kind of a cap on carbon emissions would really help. We need to stay below two degrees centigrade warming in order to have a planet that will be inhabitable for us. So that's certainly one that people could tell their representative about and help them understand.

We also need to reduce our spending on nuclear weapons, and I think this is one where this is about money, this is about taxes that you're paying and where they're going and telling your representatives to, you know, that we're not spending a whole lot more on nuclear weapons would be terrific, along with submarines, aircraft and missiles which send these nuclear weapons around the world.

We also need to be sure that the U.S.-Russian relationship gets back to some kind of communication level. And as much as we all are feeling what's happening in the Ukraine and to the Ukrainian people, turning Mr. Putin into a demon is not going to solve that problem. So for those who may have a special sympathy for the Ukrainian people, I just ask whether they hate Mr. Putin more than they hate nuclear weapons, because it's the nuclear weapons that are going to rear their ugly head if we don't get that relationship straight. So, I think those are the main things, and I think people everywhere can keep doing what probably many in among your own audience do, which is reduce C02 emissions, buy cars which are fuel-efficient, work in your cities and towns. There's a terrific city mayors movement on sustainability in cities and getting more efficient infrastructure, you know, and making your houses more efficient. All that really does help. I know it's hard to see it in the short term, but in the long term, it will make a big difference.

For more information on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists visit thebulletin.org.

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