The world remains perilously close to a nuclear disaster or catastrophic climate change that could devastate humanity, according to Stanford experts and California Governor Jerry Brown, who were on hand to unveil the latest update to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “doomsday clock” on Tuesday.
The symbolic clock was created in 1947 when Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer (the father of the U.S. nuclear program) founded the publication.
The closer the minute hand gets to midnight, the closer their Board of Science and Security predicts humankind is to destroying itself.
“I must say with utter dismay that it stays at three minutes to midnight,” said Rachel Bronson, the publication’s executive director and publisher, in a bi-coastal teleconference carried live from The National Press Club in Washington D.C. and the Stanford campus.
Despite some positive development over the past year, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords, the doomsday clock is now the closest it’s been to midnight since the peak of Cold War hostilities in the mid 1980s.
Stanford experts, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, said they agreed with the dire assessment.
“The danger of a nuclear catastrophe today, in my judgment, is greater than it was during the Cold War…and yet our policies simply do not reflect those dangers,” said Perry, who is a faculty member at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Perry said he was especially concerned that the U.S. and Russia were engaged in new arms race, with both countries working to rapidly modernize their nuclear arsenals.
“Whatever we need to do for deterrence, it does not require rebuilding what we did during the Cold War era,” he said.
Perry urged President Barack Obama not to give up on the goal of nuclear disarmament during his last year in office, and to push for a breakthrough deal to control fissile material at the upcoming Nuclear Summit in Washington D.C.
“These summit meetings have been quite significant, and if he can use this last summit meeting to establish international standards for fissile control, which fifty heads of state sign up to, that would be a real achievement,” Perry said.
Shultz said the U.S. needed to offer a new version of the bold plans and decisive actions that legendary American statesmen George Marshall and Dean Acheson pursued after World War II.
“We have to be engaged, because when we don’t give leadership, nobody does,” said Shultz, a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The doomsday clock was initially designed to communicate the threat from nuclear weapons, but has since been expanded to include cyber and biosecurity and the dangers of unsustainable climate change.
California Governor Jerry Brown described climate change as a “daunting threat,” with many similarities to nuclear dangers.
“Climate change and nuclear accident or nuclear war or nuclear sabotage or nuclear terrorism, they’re tied together,” Brown said.
“Climate change is moving slowly, but tipping points are around the corner and you don’t know when you’ve reached one, and beyond a tipping point, we may not be able to come back.”
Brown said he was dismayed at the lack of political action to address climate change and nuclear threats.
“I’ve been around politics all my life, and I can see an obviously broken process, a democratic system that has turned more into spectacle than getting the job done,” Brown said.
“In order to have the political leaders deal with this, they have to first acknowledge it.”
When a high school student in the audience asked what he could personally do to tackle the threat of nuclear weapons, Perry said the most important step was to educate himself about the issues, so he could educate others.
“If you can get ten people interested in talking about this problem, and each of those ten can get ten people interested in talking about this problem, it builds up in a geometric progression,” Perry said.
“I think once the public understands the dangers, they will galvanize our Congress and our leaders into action.”