Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock a minute closer to midnight. Why?

Despite the advances that have been made in the last couple of years in the reduction of nuclear weapons through the New START treaty that the United States and Russia signed, and the beginning of its implementation, we felt that the pace of reductions and discussion – and the lack of leadership in other parts of the world on the issue of a world free of nuclear weapons – meant we needed to sound the alarm.

The longer it takes for these reductions to happen, the more likely there will be proliferation – horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons and capability, and also what we call vertical proliferation, where those countries that already have nuclear weapons, in the interests of safety and reliability, will replace and upgrade  existing weapons. And this can look like a build-up that could restart arms races.  So we aren’t going to get very far if we continue at this relatively slow pace.

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Did the ongoing situation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program play any part?

While we reviewed the situation in Iran and the Middle East, it was less of an issue than the very slow pace at which the United States and Russia and others are reducing their nuclear arsenals.  The fact that the New START treaty took so long to get through the U.S. legislature was really astonishing, frankly. So all sorts of leadership are needed, not just heads of state, in many other parts of government and society. We really felt this was a very poor showing.

Also, there are the sticking points about missile defense, with the U.S. apparently wanting to pursue missile defense in the face of Russia’s real problems with it. These issues we have known about for a long time, particularly since the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2003. I see that Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller is attending the Conference on Disarmament to push for a fissile material cut off treaty, and that’s all good. But the sense of urgency that the Bulletin has felt for many years, and the opportunity that we saw two years ago, has faded. There isn’t enough new thinking or robust leadership, and this has led us to move the hand forward one minute.

Can you see anything that could kick start world leaders into action?

I think if we could have seen deeper reductions proposed by both the United States and Russia, especially since Russia really does want these reductions for budgetary reasons. They can’t afford large nuclear weapons arsenals, and frankly we can’t afford them either. It takes money to dismantle nuclear weapons, but it also takes money to maintain and upgrade them. We understand the U.S. military isn’t particularly interested in continuing to have large nuclear arsenals. With all of these conditions in place, stockpiles could go down much more rapidly.

The other nuclear weapon countries – France, the U.K. and China – could also play more substantial roles. Likewise, NATO’s posture and the foot dragging over its nuclear posture is disappointing – including the fact that they can’t seem to get 200 nuclear weapons out of Europe. The opportunity is clear, so it makes no sense to continue at a snail’s pace.

There are some upcoming opportunities, such as the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March. That’s a place where all the countries that have nuclear reactors, as well as military nuclear interests, could make some lasting change – that would be the forum in which to do it. But from the things that we’ve heard so far, it may not get as much attention – and as much leadership and forceful action – as it needs. We understand that there are economic problems that everyone is trying to deal with, but if we don’t get these really terrible weapons under lock and key so that they are no longer legitimate for national defense and national security, we’re still going to be left with the most dangerous technology in place and spreading.

What prompted you to include climate change in considering where to place the Doomsday Clock? What are your key concerns over that issue?

We reviewed the Bulletin’s mission about six years ago, and asked ourselves what Doomsday means after the Cold War. We understood the continuing danger of nuclear weapons, but we’ve also been aware of the problem of climate change. As we consulted with climate scientists and others, we began to understand the enormity of the challenge that the world faces with the disruption to climate, including the possibility that we would get to the point where we have runaway climate change – that things would happen so quickly that, even if we were to reduce carbon emissions to zero next year, we’d still be faced with continuing climate disruption.

This climate disruption itself could bring about changing patterns in agriculture – we’re already seeing that – and reductions in agricultural production. Growing seasons are already changing, habitat is changing. The oceans are acidifying at a terrific rate. And the warming of the oceans will then reduce the world’s fisheries with the possibility of greatly diminished food supplies. In addition, we are mindful of the coming fresh water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, and the possibility that wars will be fought over water – wars with nuclear weapons.

So the cascading effects of climate change, along with the simple suffering and hardship of the loss of coastal areas and island nations, has led us to believe that civilization could be changed beyond recognition. And these are technologies—fossil fuel-burning engines — that we have invented, as is the case with nuclear technologies, yet we just haven’t found ways of controlling them.

We’re beginning to see similar problems with biosecurity as well with the recent news about the H5N1 avian flu virus. The lab experiments to make that virus more virulent and transmissible to humans is an example of the kind of experimentation and advances in the life sciences that have also given us great pause. So we are really now in some ways where the original scientists of the Bulletin were – we are really interested in and concerned about these very powerful technologies that could come back to bite us.

How optimistic you are that action can be taken to start moving the clock backward?

There are some bright spots. I do think that there’s some growing understanding about the continued danger of nuclear weapons. Whenever governments have made progress on nuclear weapons in the past, whether reducing them or stopping tests, it has taken leadership on the part of political leaders.  But it has also taken ordinary people standing up and saying “We don’t want this anymore.” That’s what happened with the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and that’s certainly what happened at the end of the Cold War in 1989. Without the social movements in Eastern Europe and England, there would have been no call for radical change. The same with the Strategic Defense Initiative and the protests of independent scientists in the early Reagan years in the United States. So we’re heartened to see civic organizations working to reach new generations of people.

To meet the challenges of climate change, business leaders and activists are working at the local level, developing alternative energy technologies and implementing efficiency measures. The price of solar technology is falling, and in Germany and China and elsewhere there seems to be more investment in these alternatives, which is all to the good.

There won’t be any great bolt of lightning that creates a new consciousness that we’re all in this together and we all need to cooperate. But I think we can contribute to changes in thinking by continuously bringing facts and analysis to people and policy leaders, presenting alternatives and focusing on cooperation rather than confrontation, so ordinary people can see where their interests lie. Even the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements have shown that people can raise their voices and be heard. Our hope is that citizens and leaders alike will come to understand better how powerful technologies shape their lives and choices—for both good and ill.  With that knowledge and informed participation, we’re confident that societies can channel technologies to sustain themselves in ways that lead us away from Doomsday.

Kennette Benedict has served as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ executive director and publisher since 2005. From 1992-2005, she directed the international peace and security program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where she also established and directed the foundation’s initiative in the former Soviet Union. 

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