By Aaron Dorman
Amid the slate of world crises discussed at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, one note of good news: Pakistan and India are unlikely to engage each other in nuclear warfare, according to a nuclear policy expert.
But in other arenas, Bulletin editor-in-chief John Mecklin characterized our era as the most dangerous period since the early fifties—the last time the Doomsday Clock was set at two minutes to midnight, where the hands rest ominously for now. The Bulletin will announce any change to those hands in January.
“Last year was a huge year for us,” Mecklin said at the meeting in November. “With the help of Donald Trump, who said something horrifying about every 10 minutes all year long, we had a big traffic spike.”
During the annual donor event, the Bulletin hosted a slate of panels and discussions on the three major categories of threats to our society – nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies such as cybersecurity. The Bulletin also introduced current California Governor Jerry Brown as the new executive chair.
The unifying factor in the two political threats is the Trump Administration’s hostility towards international cooperation, said several speakers. But the problem is not as simple as blaming everything on Trump.
According to Ray Pierrehumbert, an Oxford University physics professor, no region is reducing carbon emissions at sufficient levels to avoid the catastrophic warming of climate change.
“If you look at the European Union, most believe the science is there,” Pierrehumbert said. “It’s the smallest denialist community and expressed political will is high, but has not been performing.”
Pierrehumbert explained that, because of the way carbon dioxide accumulates and persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years, the yearly emissions are not as important as the total amount of atmospheric carbon. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are above the levels needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celcius and prevent more extreme or unmanageable warming.
“We’ve already trashed the climate,” Pierrehumbert said. “But there is a difference between knocking over one garbage can and having a dumpster dumped on your front law. Question is: how much worse does it get? How much more can we emit before we reach guidepost?”
The time to act on climate change is shrinking. The latest U.N. IPCC report offers another 12 years. As of 2016, annual emissions had stopped increasing, but Pierrehumbert was skeptical that this trend would continue. The growth of the transportation sector, and the economic development of China and other parts of Asia, are major causes of concern. For Pierrehumbert, China and the US still “hold the main cards” to reverse emissions trends.
“We can’t wave a magic wand and say if everybody believed the science, if every government was committed, everything would be fine,” Pierrehumbert said.
As of now, President Trump is firmly committed to U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. His Administration is strongly considering backing out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an action termed dangerous by speaker Jon Wolfsthal, Director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and former special assistant to President Obama’s National Security Council.
The threat of nuclear weapons has been a constant issue since the U.S. dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The Trump Presidency has escalated it, between contentious dealings with North Korea over the past year, and a Nuclear Posture Report that calls for development of new nuclear weapons, in a departure from prior Administrations.
“The President is a disruptor,” said Wolfsthal. “He believes that anything that can before him has flaws because he wasn’t intimately involved in it, and this is his chance to affect change. It’s bad enough its happening in issues that made America a prosperous and successful nation that it is, and helped the world prosper though not universally or equitably … in the nuclear space, this is really dangerous because ‘we’ are convinced of our own infallibility.”
Earlier this year, activist and former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg echoed similar sentiments in his book, “The Doomsday Machine,” about the history of nuclear weapons policy in America and Russia.
On the prospect of deadly fallout and nuclear winter, Ellsberg writes: “Whether or not President Donald Trump has been briefed on this (almost surely not), both he and several of his cabinet officials, along with leaders of the Republican majority in Congress, are famous deniers of the scientific authority of such findings, based as they are on the most advanced climate models.”
Speaker Ramamurti Rajaraman, a Jawaharlal Nehru University physics professor and South Asian nuclear policy expert, said that despite the inherent dangers of nuclear weapons, the actual threat of a nuclear exchange anywhere in the world is low.
Both India and Pakistan have over 120 nuclear missiles in their arsenal. Rajaraman said the magnitude of destruction from a single exchange was something neither country could contend with or justify.
“This is how many people you may kill,” he said estimating at least half a million casualties in any nuclear strike on a major city in the region. “And don’t be embarrassed about reading that number. I think they [governments] also know. They appreciate that fact. There are some crazies who say, ‘we can build five more hospitals.’ So there are people who don’t quite understand, but people in decision making situations do not believe that.”
Other panel discussions topics of the day included cyber security, bioweapons, and other issues related to “disruptive technologies.” Recently the Bulletin has written reports on drone proliferation, spreading disinformation online, and oversight of biotechnologies.
Despite their covering a plethora of the most dangerous and growing threats, to humanity, some Bulletin staff emphasized that they work to avoid a paralysis of fear among readers or the general public.
“All is not lost,” said Elisabeth Eaves, contributing editor for the Bulletin. “The future is not predetermined, so I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are solutions … a lot of the problem is political gridlock but these are human created problems. We could pass the carbon tax, which a lot of smart people think would be the best way to reign in global warming.”
Thomas Gaulkin, the new multimedia editor who starts in January, was looking at how different media formats affect story reception. “What is the single number that would scare people, for policy people could use to argue for their point?” Gaulkin said. “We are all figuring that out. If we had the answer we would be in a better position.”
One way to engage people, is to put threats in the context of what people experience every day, Gaulkin said. “For the first time really, the environment and climate change was an issue in several races around the country because of wildfires, because of changing intensity of storms in hurricane season,” he said. “That has really caused people to think of these things not as thousand year problems but as present day right now problems. Emphasizing that is probably the best thing anybody could do.”
After the Bulletin announces the Doomsday “time” in January, Brown is expected to take up his position as co-chair. The governor had recently help put together the Global Climate Action Summit, which was held in San Francisco this past September.
“This is a real dangerous time here,” Brown said. “I don’t want you to feel too confident. But things are fragile … we know that human beings are capable of great folly as well as great invention. But this organization is dedicated to the memory of those who created the atomic bomb, catastrophic threats. That is our challenge: to wake people up and deal with the big threats.”
Brown described the current situation as analogous to two curves, with technology going up “at a very steep rate,” with the wisdom and self-restraint of leaders having flattened out.
“We have to wake up America, wake up the world, and do what is needed out of our science, our understanding, our insight, and our humanity,” Brown said.