The hands of the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic indicator of how close we are to a global catastrophe, have been moved to the 11:57 position. Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explains her publication's decision to move us closer to midnight.
Read an interview with Benedict.
Why has the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock three minutes to midnight?
There are two primary reasons. One is the acceleration of climate change without any action from leaders around the world. The other is the continuing reliance on nuclear weapons for security, including the modernization of existing weapons.
The issues of global warming and nuclear weapon proliferation are ones that require cooperation among numerous states. How do we attain global support on these matters?
That is the $64 million question, isn’t it? We’ve had numerous agreements regarding nuclear weapons, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, for many years since the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia have been dismantling their nuclear weapon supplies. The distressing news now relates to the current relationship between the U.S. and Russia. It’s been deteriorating over the past two years, even before the situation in Ukraine.
On the climate change front, we’ve seen lots of good talk, but not enough action. The [United Nations’] Climate Change Conference in Peru last December was very contentious. The U.S. and China formed a joint agreement, but it’s still unclear whether we’ll have cooperative coordination going forward.
A Gallup Poll taken last year suggests that most Americans don’t consider global warming a national concern. In fact, there’s a trend of Americans caring less about climate change as the years progress. Is this contributing to the problem?
Probably. There are a few upsides. We did see a vote recently in the U.S. Senate that shows that most senators do in fact believe that climate change is upon us. They may not agree that humans are causing it, but they agree that it’s happening. This is a good start. Scientists have been looking at that for years.
People often follow what leaders tell them and I think that may be the case here. It’s important to recognize that most people around the world are experiencing climate change. Island nations are being swept up and looking for asylum because the sea levels are rising. The monsoon season has been affected, which is the basis for agriculture production in countries like India and China. We’re seeing more intense storms because of climate change. The U.S. population is just a small minority of people who may not “get it,” although I think the younger people generally do “get it.”
It could be argued that the Doomsday Clock is a scare tactic used to bring attention to important issues. Do you earnestly think that a “global catastrophe” is imminent?
What we’re trying to do with the clock is warn people. The catastrophes may not be imminent, but unless we do things, like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and tackle climate change head-on, we’ll face global catastrophe. That may not be tomorrow, but in the next 50 years we’ll see ocean levels rise 3 feet. There’s nothing we can do about that now, but there are things we can change. We’re trying to tell people that we need to take action because all of the signs suggest we’re heading in the wrong direction.
Describe the process of how the Bulletin decides whether, and by how much, to move the Doomsday Clock.
Our board talks about the state of the world at each of its two annual meetings. We do devote one meeting to whether we’ll move the clock or not. Everyone on the board talks about what they see as the latest trends and what worries or concerns them. We go around the room and decide if we should move the clock and, if so, by how much. We’ll keep discussing until we reach a consensus. These can sometimes turn into long discussions!
View a graphic of the clock's movement throughout the years.
The closer the Doomsday Clock is set to midnight (24:00), the closer the world is to possible global catastrophe. Red bullets represent years when the clock was moved closer to midnight, and blue bullets represent years when the clock was moved back. It was initially set at 23:53; it was recently reset to 23:57. Hover over the bullets to learn more about why the clock was reset.
--Graphic by Travis Cornejo
This is a significant move. The Doomsday Clock hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1984, when the U.S. and former Soviet Union were head-to-head in a Cold War arms race. It’s only been closer to midnight in 1953, when it was two minutes to midnight, after the U.S. and Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another. These were situations where the U.S. was in direct conflict with someone. What makes the year 2015 this historic? Are times truly as dire as they were then?
In 1984, there was talk of increasing our nuclear weapons, which means the Soviets would need to keep up and produce more. The rhetoric was quite heated. The U.S. talked about the Soviet Union like they were an evil empire. At that point, it really looked as though we could precipitate a nuclear exchange. Alas, three years after that, we saw the end of the Cold War. So it’s not unheard of for leaders to take substantial action and turn this around.
Today, there really isn’t much in the way of cooperation and dialogue in the case of nuclear weapons. This is a key to our concern. There also isn’t much productive discussion about how we’ll tackle the global warming question. There are some alternative technologies popping up but we don’t see the investment in those technologies to make a real difference right now.
Nuclear power is brought up in your list of concerns. The Bulletin is urging world leaders to tackle the nuclear waste problem. Is your publication advocating for nuclear power as an energy source?
We do not. We think there are some benefits, but there are also tremendous risks. The largest risk is of course the proliferation of nuclear weapons via nuclear power. There are some big stumbling blocks, political and technical, in making nuclear power a reusable source. Many obstacles are linked to the nuclear weapon problem.
Are increased greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, irreparably changing our environment and ecosystem?
I think, to some extent, yes. A recent study came out about the melting of the Antarctic glacial fields. It’s clear now that they’re collapsing and there’s nothing we can do to reverse that. What we can do is keep the temperature of the globe down by drastically lowering carbon dioxide emissions over the next two to three years.
How will the world change if global warming remains unchecked?
The global temperature will rise. We’ll see more extreme storms. The agriculture industry will be disrupted. If we let it go and do nothing, the projections are that we’ll end up like Venus. Suffice to say, Venus’ conditions are not as hospitable as Earth’s.
What kind of nuclear modernization programs is the Bulletin worried about?
We’re worried about a lot of programs – the ones that the U.S., Russia, China, India, Britain and Pakistan, to name a few, have been developing. These modernizations are thought to make these weapons more reliable and safer. They produce more predictable explosive yields. But when you look at it from outside the country, what we see is China and others producing new weapons, new kinds of weapons, and when they see us, they see us doing the same. It’s the token formula for an arms race. This is exactly the kind of arms race that we were in during the Cold War. We’re worried that we’re on the cusp of a new kind of nuclear arms race at this time.
It seems what the American public hears most about is the danger of potentially hostile states, like Iran and North Korea, developing nuclear weapons. With this resetting of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin touches on that threat but focuses primarily on the nuclear stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia. In fact, the U.S. and Russia own more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads. How important is it for the U.S. and Russia to scale down nuclear weapon capacity to achieve global stability?
It’s essential. Not only do we have the largest number, but we’ve been learning about how to dismantle these weapons. Our diplomatic efforts need to come to bear. The fact that there are continuous talks with Iran and their program, and that there are a number of parties involved, is a good thing. The International Atomic Energy Agency is involved in these negotiations. I do think that putting more sanctions on Iran, at this time, undercuts this progress though.
We also need to focus on where there actually are existing nuclear weapons. We’ve been engaged in jointly dismantling our nuclear weapons with the Russians since 1994. Last month, for the first time in 20 years, we stopped doing that. There are arguments on both sides as to why we stopped, but we’re failing to build trust, which is why the program was established in the first place.
Does the Bulletin have an issue with how the subjects of climate change and nuclear weapon proliferation are portrayed in the media?
I think the media does what it can. They often follow the way that leaders portray events in the world. Journalism is having a hard time these days. There isn’t enough money for investigative reporting, so it’s hard to get a hold of these stories. That’s why we think publishing the Bulletin is so important. But the media may not always see these as the top-of-the-page news. in part because our leaders aren’t paying enough attention to it.
Do you find any irony in the fact that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his efforts in nuclear disarmament and climate change?
We were pleased with the initial statements when he came into office. We’re very heartened that in the State of the Union address he said climate change is really the major threat to the United States. But, as one of our board members said, “When all is said and done, there’s less done than said.” One president and one leader can surely make a difference, but he needs followers too. We need to stand up for what we think and work on these issues together. I think President Obama’s personal interests are still there, but he’s got a huge political-military bureaucracy to move and that can be very difficult to do.
How has Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine affected nuclear weapon policies in the United States or Russia?
In 2010, the U.S. and Russia signed the New START treaty, which had provisions on continuing to reduce nuclear weapons. It wasn’t a huge shift in policy, but it was another treaty. Since then, however, there hasn’t been any movement regarding negotiations. Usually, you sign one treaty and start another.
These nuclear weapon modernization programs are expensive. Is that a bigger concern than the security implications? How big is the economic problem?
For the U.S. public, they’re tremendously expensive. It’ll cost $330 billion over the next 10 years or so, and a trillion dollars over the next 30 years. We don’t need these weapons and we certainly don’t need these programs. People may say, “Oh, these new weapons are great.” But what they’re missing is that the weapons are more usable now. We’ll be able to take out other people’s missiles with precision, which means we’ll be more likely to use them. As a nuclear arms strategy, it’s a bad thing. This is the destabilizing effect of an arms race.
The Bulletin writes that they’re “concerned about the lag between scientific advances in dual-use technologies and the ability of civil society to control them.” What does that mean?
We’re geniuses in developing new technology, whether for bombs or electricity. We’ve also fueled an industrial revolution that has brought industry to plenty of people. We know that there are advancements and medical benefits in synthetic biology. There are even advancements in artificial intelligence. But as our board member Stephen Hawking has suggested, these technologies can be used against us.
All of these are advancements that could have terrific benefits but we’re slow to see how they can have destructive and harmful qualities. We’re concerned that we let these technologies into the marketplace without adequate protections for humans and the environment.
So much about this year is what we’ve done wrong. What did we do well in 2015? How have we come forward?
That’s a tough question. [Laughs] It’s hard to see where we’re doing spectacularly well. There are definitely advancements in alternative energy sources. In California, we’ve seen tremendous advances in energy efficiency, regulation of automobiles, and the development of electric cars. All of these things are the way of the future. The problem is that we haven’t been investing in them enough and telling the people about them. We’re not doing a great job of cooperating with each other but there is at least a recognition that climate change is happening. And with nuclear weapons, we had done so well, but the last two years have been troubling. This tension between the U.S. and Russia is still new and certainly not irreversible. The good thing is that it’s within our power to make these changes.
Interview has been condensed and edited.