Scientists warn of the “twin existential threats” facing our planet – climate change and nuclear weapons. The following article was published in the March-April 2020 issue of NewsNotes. 

On January 23, 2020 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organization of science and global security experts, announced that it was moving the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” to 100 seconds to midnight – closer to doomsday than ever before. Introduced in 1947 to visualize the risk of “destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” the clock’s hands are moved closer to or further from midnight – the apocalypse – by a group of experts at the Bulletin. Previously the gravest warning was when the clock was set to two minutes to midnight, which occurred upon the introduction of the hydrogen bomb in 1953, and again in 2018 .

The latest warning comes at an opportune time. Nuclear weapons and climate change are widely recognized by scientists and security experts as “twin existential threats” to life on earth. While much more action is needed, the gravity of climate change has largely entered the global consciousness, thanks to global youth activism. But since the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat has failed to grab the public imagination in the same way. As experts warn that the danger of nuclear annihilation is greater than ever, the crucial New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) – the centerpiece of nuclear arms control and verification between the U.S. and Russia – is set to expire in February, 2021. The time is ripe for a new wave of citizen action to pressure leaders to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, nuclear weapons.

After announcing the Bulletin’s decision to move the clock closer to midnight, a panel of experts addressed a crowd at Georgetown University to explain the decision. The panel included Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon; former California Governor Jerry Brown, Executive Chair of the Bulletin; and Rachel Bronson, Bulletin President and CEO. Ban and Bronson cited the dismantling of the global arms control regime as a major factor in the decision, as world leaders are walking away from agreements and multilateral structures which reduce the nuclear threat with no plans for how to replace them. The panelists specifically mentioned U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty as examples, as well as reluctance on the part of the Trump Administration to extend New START. In addition, the panel expressed alarm at changes in the U.S. military’s nuclear strategy, including the development and deployment of “low-yield” nuclear weapons which can be used to wage “winnable” wars and new Pentagon plans for a nuclear first strike. 

Robinson called for global citizen activism aimed at disrupting such troubling trends, while Brown argued that a rallying cry for the next round of budget negotiations in the U.S. should be, “No START, no budget!”, suggesting that, if the White House could shut down the government over far less urgent issues, Congress could certainly withhold a new budget as a way of persuading the president to sign the treaty. Russia has already expressed willingness to sign a renewed treaty immediately, without negotiations. 

The New START Treaty is between the U.S. and Russia, but President Trump says he wants to negotiate a deal that would also include China. The Georgetown panel suggested that it is far more important to extend the treaty between the U.S. and Russia – the countries with the most nuclear weapons – than to initiate negotiations to include China, whose nuclear arsenal is less than one fifth that of the two nuclear superpowers and whose leaders have indicated China will not join the New START. Without extending New START, the panel warned, the U.S. and Russia could spark a new arms race akin to that of the Cold War, putting the world at far greater risk, and using precious resources that could otherwise be spent on necessary social programs around the world. 

Nonproliferation and arms reduction are critical and challenging first steps to reach the goal of total nuclear disarmament. Catholic leaders, led by Pope Francis, have stated clearly that the possession of any nuclear weapons is immoral. Vatican diplomats have been supporting dialogue between Russian and U.S. negotiators to increase cooperation on nuclear arms reduction. We must raise the alarm – the clock is ticking. § 

Faith in action: Urge Congress to pass bills that would support the renewal of the New START treaty: