The Doomsday Clock currently stands at 100 seconds to midnight (read: annihilation), expressing that humanity is the closest to self-destruction since the clock’s creation in 1947. Moving forward twenty seconds from its previous setting in 2019, this unprecedented change calls for immediate action, symbolising two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change.
Originally conceived as a warning illustration for the cover of the first Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – a publication detailing updates and warnings in nuclear weaponry created by a group of scientists who had been involved with the Manhattan Project – the clock has remained an enduring symbol of global man-made catastrophe. Since that original publication (set at seven minutes to midnight), the Clock has moved forwards and backwards as a wake-up call to humanity, responding to the likelihood of nuclear and climate threats. As our global political climate continues to boil with intense unpredictability, Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has set a dramatic new countdown with a critical chime.
Alex James Taylor: What first drew you to working with the Bulletin and particularly the Doomsday Clock?
Rachel Bronson: My background is American national security and global affairs, I’ve worked in different American think tanks and my area of expertise is the Middle East. I’ve always known the Bulletin and I read it in graduate school like many people. But what interested me to make the jump to the Bulletin was not so much the Doomsday Clock, which is of course incredibly important and one of the most powerful images around the globe, but it was the issues the Bulletin works on day in, day out: nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies. Both from what I was seeing in the Middle East and what I understood as the need for policies and better engagement around key issues, for example, with the Iran deal, what Iran’s programme was doing, and how other countries were responding. So questions of nuclear weapons were really important to me and fast-changing in the areas I was looking at. Then pulling my head up and seeing that globally there were such changing realities on the nuclear landscape. Climate was having a serious effect in these countries too, and we know that it contributed to the Syrian crisis. I took the job around February, 2015 and then in March that year The Economist was delivered to my door and the cover was, “A New Nuclear Age” – this notion that the architecture that has kept us safe for at least 50 years is collapsing, and we’re pulling out of arms control agreements because we don’t feel like they’re doing their job but we aren’t replacing them with anything better. So thinking about the role of the United States and its relationship with Russia, and the two nations controlling more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. These issues are so important, especially for someone so interested in global security and the future of war and peace.
In this moment, the subjects the Bulletin focuses on were vital, so I wanted to be a part of that. Then the Doomsday Clock enters into that because – as I said before – it’s one of the most powerful graphics on the planet. I certainly knew of it when I got here, but I didn’t fully appreciate its power. I’ve worked at a number of different think tanks and idea generators and policy-related organisations, but I’ve never seen anything like the power of the Doomsday Clock to stop the global news cycle and generate a conversation around something really complicated and pivotal. The enormous power of it and the responsibility of presenting it is very compelling. What’s important to me is that we always connect it with the daily work of the board who set the time and the work of the organisation. The conversation that the clock generates is unique and powerful, and we take our responsibilities of that extremely seriously.
Alex: That level of citizen engagement and openness is what initially led the Bulletin to be founded, would you say that’s your main aim, to communicate this information to the public?
Rachel: Absolutely, we really see our role in this as connecting the engaged and interested public with the science and policy experts – serving as a conduit, translator or engagement vehicle. When it comes to nuclear weapons – similarly with climate – it’s incredibly complicated and, certainly on the nuclear side, often quite boring, intentionally so. You want nuclear policy to be very slow in order to reduce actions that might be taken. The technical aspects can also feel very out of reach, so our founders built us to engage the public in a way that is accessible because these issues are so important and policymakers do ultimately respond to their citizens, at least in democracies. So there was a time when the fear and the threat felt more real and we were closer to the use of these weapons when there was an interest in learning more.
“…I’ve never seen anything like the power of the Doomsday Clock to stop the global news cycle and generate a conversation around something really complicated and pivotal…”
We’ve then gone through a period of time, up until around 2010, where there wasn’t much of an interest, in part because I think many people thought that the experts and leaders were taking care of them by fine-tuning arms control agreements and reducing the dependence on nuclear weapons or addressing issues of climate change. Low and behold, people are now realising that that might not be the case right now, and in fact, we’re at this moment where there seems to be an increasing belief that nuclear weapons, if, quote-unquote, limited, could be used, or that we need low-yield nuclear weapons as a deterrent, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me or many others in my organisation. These programmes are built in 50-year increments, so states are now investing in what they anticipate others might be doing in thirty years. So you’re not even just responding to what the other side is doing, you’re responding to what you anticipate they might do. This is what an arms race looks like, this is what we’ve spent – since the 70s – trying to reverse, and did a pretty effective job until 2010.
Now we’re in a period very similar to the 50s and 60s where we don’t trust the other side, and so we’re building on fear. And we’ve seen huge amounts of resources go into it that could be more productively invested, it’s enormously wasteful. Now is the moment where across the board citizens need to be asking their leaders whether that’s a good investment. Happily, I think we’re at a place where people are viscerally feeling that it’s going the wrong way and they’re getting more engaged. Now we have to be able to connect them to some sort of action, which is always harder to do for nuclear issues compared to climate change. That sort of engagement that we’re seeing more robustly on the climate side is seeming to have an effect, it’s gaining attention and the public engagement is beginning to enter into the consciousness of leaders. We want to support and encourage that and bring it into the nuclear world as well.
Alex: It’s interesting what you say about countries building their arms weaponry in response to their own fears about what other countries are doing, it’s that kind of Dr Strangelove paranoia that ultimately takes us closer to oblivion. On the Bulletin website you have a graph displaying how many nuclear weapons each country has, and it’s actually relatively low compared to the 60s, 70s, 80s. Is the amount of weapons lower but the fear is higher, or the amount is lower but the weapons are more powerful?
Rachel: Previously, the closest it’s ever been to midnight is two minutes to, which was in 1953 when both the US and the Soviet had tested nitrogen bombs, which had just increased the magnitude and destructive power of poliweapons. There was no arms control or architecture and there was no transparency built into the relations between the two countries. The clock has moved as far away as seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991 after arms control agreements had been signed and the end of the Cold War was in process, then it’s been steadily ticking forward since.
In 2017, we moved it back to two minutes to midnight because we’re back into a period of instability. Yes we have arms control architecture now, but we’re dissociating ourselves from it, either because it’s not working or because we don’t have the patience or interest for it, but we’re not replacing it with anything else, that’s the key thing. So when skeptics and critics point out that the Russians are cheating on the INF (Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, it’s probably true, but pulling out of it just means that the US has lost any ability to galvanise other countries for bad behavior by the Russians. We’ve lost any transparency that we had in terms of commitments to each other, making it far more dangerous. We’re back in this period where every major state is investing in its nuclear arsenals.
Back in the 50s we considered the use of nuclear weapons in our defense policies. In 2020 we’re in a period where you can see a willingness to use language which suggests that there will be times and cases where we will use them. You are absolutely right to point out that the number of warheads has gone down significantly, and that is something people will point out and say, “Surely it’s not as dangerous.” Yes, in the 80s, there were about 80,000 nuclear warheads and now we’re much closer to 10,000, but the debate within the field is that those warheads carry a greater amount of brutality. You have delivery systems that are able to deliver multiple warheads and the way you count them makes each one more lethal. For us, yes the importance of reducing the numbers of warheads reduces the likelihood of accidents, but now there’s increasing investment, not only in warheads, but their delivery systems.
“Previously, the closest it’s ever been to midnight is two minutes to, which was in 1953 when both the US and the Soviet had tested nitrogen bombs, which had just increased the magnitude and destructive power of poliweapons.”
Alex: And how transparent does each country have to be when revealing their nuclear weaponry? Are they able to hide certain figures?
Rachel: There’s some opacity around programmes but it’s less about that. The greater concern, for example, is when you invest in delivery systems that can carry either a nuclear warhead or a conventional warhead, or you’re taking conventional warheads and you’re beginning to make advancements in technology that attaches nuclear warheads to them. This leads to uncertainty on the other side as to what warhead they’ve put on that delivery system. If you don’t know, you really do have to prepare for the worst. There’s been a lot of work over the past year to really try and keep those separate so that there’s never any uncertainty as to what’s coming at you. Not to say that the conventional warheads aren’t very destructive and lethal, but it changes the calculation.
Alex: Can you talk me through the Bulletin’s meetings and how the decision ultimately gets made on the next clock time?
Rachel: It’s our Science and Security Board that sets the time and also members of our Board of Sponsors, who are there in person with us, or on video or phone. Also in the room is our Governing Board, who don’t vote on the clock time. They are in regular conversations throughout the year with us, as we’re considering what issues to publish on, what to explore, what’s changing and how to respond. They meet by phone throughout the year as well and in-person twice a year at our biannual meetings in Chicago, featuring experts from our nuclear team, our climate team, our disruptive tech team. They’re reviewing two questions: is the world safer or greater at risk this year than last, and is the world at safer or greater risk this year compared to previous clock times? They engage in a series of conversations and ultimately render a judgment on those two questions and set a time based on the message they’re trying to convey.
So it’s a judgment of experts who are working on this all year round. We feel it’s the right call and then we issue a statement for anyone who wants to learn more on how we got to that conclusion. But it’s really the conversation that happens afterward that, for us, is the most important, for people to question whether we got it right, how they would’ve answered that question and whether they would’ve moved it closer or further away from midnight. The critiques people write are, to us, absolutely appropriate, because these are really hard issues to talk about. It’s difficult to sit down at a table and say, “Well what do you think about the US leaving the INF agreement?” or, “Do you really think that the sunset clause in the Iran nuclear deal was too short?” Some people can, but that’s really hard [laughs], so to be able to say, “I think it should be five minutes,” or “I think it should be one minute…”
We feel extremely solid about what we’re saying, but generating that conversation, that’s the beginning of engagement and hopefully the beginning of people wanting to learn more about current threats, which is the Bulletin’s most important role.
The above interview took place in December 2019 and was published in HERO 23.