Talking Doomsday: How do we turn the corner on nuclear weapons and climate change?

This article appears in the Q&As with Vinnie Rotondaro feature series. View the full series.

Earlier this month, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced it had moved the minute hand of the "Doomsday Clock," a symbol created to convey "how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making," two minutes closer to midnight. Global nuclear weapons modernizations and unchecked climate change "pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity," the Bulletin wrote. "World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe."

What got us to this point? What can we do to turn the corner? NCR asked Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin

NCR: In announcing the decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight, the Bulletin "implored" humanity to start demanding action from world leaders on the issues of nuclear weapons and climate change. But how much of humanity even realizes there is a problem? 

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Benedict: Well, I think many people are aware of climate change. They may not have an opinion about it or know much about it, but I think people know that it's in the air. And I think that in some parts of the world, like India and China, where they're already suffering from very erratic monsoon seasons and rainy seasons, where it's affecting their agricultural production, that people do know. Certainly in Europe, they do. They've been working for [a] couple [of] decades now on implementing greener technologies. In Africa, on the other hand, I doubt that there is much discussion. But then again, there are so many problems in so many parts of the world, it's probably not at the top of people's minds. 

As for nuclear weapons, in the United States, I've see a recent poll where 35 percent of those asked said they thought nuclear weapons were a great threat to humanity. Even more of a threat than climate change. So at least there is some knowledge that nuclear weapons are still around. Although, other [older] polls suggest that people don't really know how many we have. When asked, people said they thought we might have about 200. And when asked, "How many do you think we should have?" They would say, "Well, maybe 100." So the fact that we have thousands isn't clearly in their minds. And they don't know that these weapons are set on a high state of launch readiness. These things are not at the top of people's minds. And we understand that. And that's why we want to get people's attention. 

The fact that more people don't get it, that some even deny these realities -- especially in relation to climate change -- how does that make you feel?

I see it as a challenge. And I guess I feel a sense of injustice. Injustice that here we are with these forces that are essentially changing our planet, making it unlivable on the clime change front, and certain people know very well that it has been happening. Oil companies have been looking at climate change for years, trying to strategize. The media doesn't take this up the way it should. And our government -- well ,finally Obama did mention climate change in his State of the Union address this year. ... But I guess I feel like, with ordinary people, we're not telling them the truth. They're not hearing it. And we're not doing anything to protect them. In our government, national security is often seen as the highest priority. What does that mean? Usually it means that the government will keep people from harm. But they're not doing that. It is an injustice. 

Do our politics do enough to explain these issues to American citizens? 

I believe in democracy, and to me, democracy means having people who are well-informed. But I think there are very few in our government who are interested in taking this on. Frankly, I don't understand what is happening in Washington, D.C. I do have a sense that there a few people who are quite fearful. These people are part of our House of Representatives and Senate. They're mostly people who've experienced some privilege in their lives -- usually white men. I think they see that the world is shifting, and they don't really know how to respond, except by responding from fear -- fear that they will lose power. And so they seem to want to grasp power wherever they find it. A kind of politics of personality seems to have a grip on Washington. Certainly it's not a place where people go to get problems solved, as I think it once was.

So it's difficult to know what to do. Maybe it won't be the United States that takes the leadership on these issues. I've been heartened by a movement of countries that have met now three times in three conferences to talk about the effects of nuclear weapons explosions -- on everybody, not just the countries where bombs might fall. These countries are beginning to get more interested in how a nuclear exchange could affect everyone in the world. The U.S. and the other nuclear weapons states refused to go to the first two of these conferences. But the United States did attend the last one. So that's heartening.

Do you see religion -- all religion, not just Christianity -- doing enough from a moral and spiritual point of view?

I think the U.S. Catholic bishops have played a very important role on the nuclear weapons issue over time, especially in the 1980s with their pastoral letter ... and I think there has been a another letter since. I don't know how much that gets down to parishes and everyday life. And of course people will say, "Well, what can we do about it?" And that's true. There's not a whole lot that people can do directly. But so many of institutions are facing challenges of legitimacy. Our government and our religious institutions, even when they speak now, it's not clear who's listening, because their credibly may be less than what it was in the past. 

One heartening development has been in the evangelical Christian movement, where there has been a developing a sense of stewardship, of stewardship of the earth. It's mostly directed at climate change, though I think it could certainly be extended to nuclear weapons, the most destructive technology on earth. This idea of stewardship of the earth is a powerful message of duty and obligation. But you ask if it's enough and, well, I guess not, because we don't see a whole lot of change. 

Have you heard about the pope's upcoming encyclical on climate change?

Yes, from the pope, yes. 

What are your hopes for it? 

I think that this pope has done some terrific things, and I think this will be another one of them. And maybe it will also begin to restore the institution of the Catholic church so that people will want to engage with it again on these issues. Because it's a huge force in the world. That would be really great. So much of the solution with these two major issues will depend on our seeing ourselves as communities rather than as individual consumers. And I think that both politics and religion, but religion especially, does offer a sense of community on many levels. For spiritual connection, for social action. 

And what about journalism? Is journalism doing enough? Does the journalism we have work?

Well, journalism is in some trouble itself as an institution. There are fewer and fewer science journalists due to the financial strains on news organizations. And with the digital revolution, everyone thinks that news should be free, so no one wants to pay journalists to really dig in and figure out these complex issues and then be able to translate them for the public. So we end up -- and I'm not trying to point fingers -- with a fairly shallow system. [Journalists] don't have enough time to really look into the issues or explore them with any depth, so we end up with this political volleying back and forth -- almost like he said, she said -- and nothing much about the underlying science. And I think that's one reason why we got such a tremendous response to our announcement [to move the clock forward]. The Bulletin is a place where journalists are working with [scientists] to publish stories and to try to make up for that loss in science journalism that we've been seeing.

How do scientists feel about the lack of greater urgency in society on the issues?

The science has been building for 50 years. And you know, it's always astonishing to scientists, people who spend their lives looking at this, studying it with the closest scrutiny, the closest attention to evidence and methods. I think they find it really puzzling. They just cannot figure out why people would not be able to understand this and take this in and act on it. I think they're genuinely puzzled. 

Do you think inequality plays a role?

Oh, interesting. Tell me what you have in mind there.

Lack of educational opportunity, lack of time to think about these things. Clearly there is a major problem, but when people have less and are struggling -- when major problems are occurring on a regular basis, at a nuclear level, in their own lives -- maybe they're unable to see past their own lives because they don't have that luxury.

I absolutely agree. And when you look back through history, when regular people -- not great leaders, but regular people -- weigh in, that is what makes the difference.

In the 1950s and the early '60s, when atmospheric nuclear testing was resulting in Strontium-90 being found in babies' teeth and mothers' milk, people were outraged that they should be subjected to this kind of stuff. And so they went out in the streets and protested, and we got the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Yes, it was the leadership on the inside [who facilitated the treaty]. But Jerry Wiesner, who was then science adviser to President [John F.] Kennedy, said, "Yes, we worked on the inside, but boy, we needed those protests on the outside." We needed people on the outside telling us what we needed to hear and what we needed to do.

Same in the 1980s with the Reagan administration buildup on nuclear weapons. There was a big freeze movement, and it got people's attention. And they heard it in the halls of the White House and Congress. Even with the Vietnam War, people were self-interested there, too. The draft made it exceedingly more unpopular than it otherwise might have been. So when it affects people directly, when people begin to feel it in their everyday lives, they will find ways to come out and make their voices heard. It doesn't matter if it's in the streets or digitally, but it has to be pretty sustained. So you need people who are not working three jobs. Or people who feel insecure in their jobs. 

Of course, then there's the problem that if you're already feeling the effects of nuclear, well, there may not be much time for sustained effort. Or if your city is under water ...

[Laughs] Well, I think that's why we put out this design, this Doomsday Clock. It's amazingly powerful. I think it speaks to people's sense that things aren't quite right and to the question of, Who's going to tell us the truth about this stuff? I think that's what people want to hear, and they want to hear it from independent scientists and experts who want -- want -- folks to know what's happening to our world. 

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrontodaro@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Climate, nukes push clock closer to midnight .

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