International Affairs Forum:
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists states that its purpose is to inform the public about threats to humanity's survival. How do you do this?
We have several means of communicating with the public. We have a magazine that was first published by the Manhattan Project scientists in 1945, and has been published continuously since that time. We have just launched a new website, www.thebulletin.org, where we have what is in the print magazine, including essays and longer pieces, many of them by scientists who are interested in the effects of nuclear weapons, climate change and new discoveries in the life sciences and biosecurity. We also have columns on the web site, we have roundtables and we'll be developing more in the future. We'll also be developing interactive features, where we'll have more room for our audiences to participate.
We also have the Doomsday Clock, which was first on the cover of the magazine in 1947. The Doomsday Clock has come to represent to people from around the world the judgment of scientists and experts about how close, or how far away, we are from the destruction of our societies and the end of human civilization. In 1947, when the clock was first placed on the cover of the Bulletin, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were beginning an arms race and the board of directors of the organization thought the clock would be a good way to show people how much danger we were in.
Where does the clock stand at now?
The clock is at five minutes to midnight. We moved the hand of the clock in January 2007. We are on the brink of a second nuclear age, even more dangerous than the first one that began in 1945 with the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There are a number of new and dangerous trends that we see in the area of nuclear weapons. And the second area is the increasingly clear effects of climate change on human habitats, on agricultural production, on coastlines because of possible sea level rises, on oceans and a whole host of possible species extinction. These trends we're observing seem to indicate an even more accelerated pace of climate change, more than scientists even at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were predicting even a couple of years ago. For those two major reasons, we moved the hands of the clock from seven minutes to midnight, to five minutes.
How do you decide when the clock will move?
There is a board of directors that includes a range of experts in security and the sciences, along with our board of sponsors, which includes Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Freeman Dyson and others. We talk about the clock at every board meeting and bring to that discussion a sense about the trends these professionals are seeing in their own fields. We talk about it every time, though we don't always move the hands of the clock - we do it very judiciously when we feel there is real reason for particular concern.
What's the closest the clock has come to midnight?
The closest was two minutes to midnight in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs within nine months of each other. This suggested to the Bulletin board that we were really at full force into an arms race.
Originally your organization was concerned with the nuclear threat, but has branched out to include climate change. When was that decision made?
Well, the Bulletin published its first article on this in 1961 on the effects of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere. Remember these are scientists - physicists, biologists - from many different disciplines, and they were interested in what kinds of technological developments could do irretrievable harm to the world. So 1961 was the first, and there have been articles published all through the years. In 1972 we had a major piece by Spencer Weart about climate change. So we've been keeping track of it over time, and it's played a part in the clock decisions at earlier points. But the evidence now in the last few years made it clear to the board that we needed to include this a civilization-threatening set of developments.
If you could pinpoint the Bulletin's biggest concern, what would it be?
Frankly, our board members are most concerned about the existing arsenals in Russia and the United States. Our two countries still have about 1,000 each - armed intercontinental ballistic missiles - ready to be fired in minutes of a command. We're really set to fight an all out nuclear war, every minute of every day. Within 10 minutes of a command these missiles could be launched, and of course it only takes 30 minutes for them to cross the Atlantic and half way across the globe.
The targeting programs are still there, although we understand they have been detargeted so the weapons would fall into the ocean, though we don"t know where of course. But clearly the war plans that were in place for 50 or 60 years are still there, and they are easily reprogrammable we're told in say three to five minutes. Some people characterize it as a hair trigger alert. So in a sense we haven't really stood down from the Cold War. Our military bureaucracy is still in a war fighting position, with these extraordinary weapons. In one launch, 50 missiles would be launched, and with that, the capacity to kill 250 million people.
So these are the most dangerous technologies on earth, and the arsenals that the U.S. and Russia have, 25,000 or 26,000 altogether, are completely out of proportion to anything we need. And then there are about 1,000 more - France has the next most with about 300 or so, then there's the U.K. and China with, we're not sure, but maybe about 200, and also India and Pakistan. But Russia and the United States are the only two countries that have them on this kind of alert status.
You've outlined a lot of concerns. Is there anything you've seen in recent years that gives you cause for hope?
I think in terms of the nuclear weapons, people are beginning to pay a bit more attention. Thinking about the spread of nuclear weapons, and how we're going to stop that, is at least on the agenda. We can certainly discuss whether that should be done through Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, which does a very good job of keeping track of where this material is. So I think it is certainly on the agenda.
And, you know, with the end of the Cold War, we've seen nine countries give up their nuclear weapons programs. I think the question is whether we are going to continue the downward trend, and in fact in the U.S. and Russia we've gone from a high of about 70,000 nuclear weapons in the early 1980s to about 25,000 today. So we're about half way there. And the attention that former Secretary of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Bill Perry and Sam Nunn are bringing to the issue - calling for a world free of nuclear weapons – is, I think, a very positive step forward. And they are talking to their international counterparts and trying to bring more attention to the possibility that we could certainly if not eliminate, at least prohibit the production and use of nuclear weapons. And on climate change I think yes, the public is awakening to the problem - perhaps later than many of us might have wanted - but I think there is at least the beginning of consciousness that there is a problem and that there are things we can do to address it.
Kennette Benedict is the Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. From 1992-2005, she directed the international peace and security program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She also established and directed the foundation's initiative in the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002.
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