One of the clock’s timekeepers; Dr. Kennette Benedict, Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and also Mr. John Large, an independent nuclear expert, and Consulting Engineer with Large & Associates in London discuss this pertinent issue.
The tensions of the Cold War period look almost calm in comparison to what is happening now internationally, with at least two international conflicts occurring, each one of which could lead to a Third World War. From this perspective, the Cold War period looks almost safe. Then there are Climate Change issues, which are just as serious, although because of their delayed effect, easier to ignore. As a result, a group of scientists has come up with a sobering reflection of the salience of current international events. The Doomsday Clock.
Sharon Squassoni, the Director and Senior Fellow at the Proliferation Prevention Program Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the Doomsday Clock committee in Washington, also commented on the issue.
May ask you, please, about your role in the Doomsday Clock committee? What exactly does the committee do? And how does it influence the position of the hands on the doomsday clock?
Sharon Squassoni: I am a new member of the Science and Security Board, which is a group of scientists that advise on this and other issues. I'm a political scientist by training and I just joined the board in November. So, this was my first experience in helping to set the hands of the clock. The process is an iterative process and we each put forth our views. I don’t know if I can reveal too much.
It sounds very democratic!
Sharon Squassoni: Yes, it is very democratic. There are multiple votes and we have to support our arguments. I think, in the end, everyone pretty much agrees on why, how and how much we are going to move the clock.
But it is a scientific thing, isn’t it? I mean, you are coming from a scientific point of view. You all seem to be interested in the scientific implications on the natural world and, as human beings are part of the natural world, on us too. We are not talking about politics here?
Sharon Squassoni: No, we are not. And actually, we try to stay away from that. In other words, yes, the invasion of Crimea is a significant political event, but that is not why the hands of the clock moved. It is more about humans’ capability to control technology and the impact that it has on our environment. And when I use the term “environment” here, I'm using it very loosely, but how technological developments will affect human life on the planet.
You’ve mentioned human beings’ ability to control their own technology. It is a bit like talking about children – isn’t it? – given weapons to play with: are they able to control themselves or will they beat up their brothers and sisters and shoot them before teatime? It is frightening, isn’t it? But we are looking at it in a situation of maturity. You are a scientist, but what about us, listeners with very little understanding about what is going on? How can you communicate to us the importance of your work, of the clock?
Sharon Squassoni: The clock as an icon is meant to be a simple message, which is: we are getting closer to a point in time in which some of the developments or trends could be catastrophic. And so, it is meant to have a very simple message. But, obviously, all the science and analysis that goes behind it is quite complicated.
Part of the problem, I think, with the nuclear weapons and climate change, even though they seem like very desperate fields of enquiry, is that, as humans, we become accustomed to living with these threats. And so, it is very hard for us, and I'm not a climate scientist, but it is very hard for us to assess, look at all of that data over a long period of time and really comprehend its impact. Similarly with nuclear weapons, in the US and in Russia we have been living with nuclear weapons for 70 years. And it becomes after a time and you see this in how the US, at least, has been handling its nuclear weapons. There is a sense of complacency. This is the way it’s always been and, therefore, we are going to continue down this path.
And then, we have the whole problem of perception. I live in Scotland most of the time and I work in Russia. And whenever I get out of the airport in Moscow or in Glasgow, it is almost like walking through a lock or something. You know, a ship goes through a lock. It is on a consciousness level. And I'm aware that my perception actually changes almost physically and by the time I get to the city center of whichever city in whichever country it is, I'm actually beginning to think differently. And everything around me supports my new state of mind, which differs from the state of mind I was in half an hour ago. And our perception is so strong, isn’t it? We can’t agree on anything, as human beings in different parts of the world, because we are seeing the same problem from a different point of view, different mindset, different understanding. You as a scientist, help us. Is there a way out of this, to solve this perception problem?
Sharon Squassoni: That is a tough one. I'm a political scientist. And so, I very much deal with perceptions. And one of the things that we have tried, and we are trying increasingly, is using the experience of the US and Russia in arms control and cooperative threat reduction, and trying to use those lessons learnt in other areas. So, for example, the development of tactical nuclear weapons – short-range nuclear weapons which can really lower the threshold for nuclear weapons use in the South Asia (which is a big problem) and the ones that we faced in Europe. I mean, as a matter of fact, there still are US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, even though the Russians have brought theirs back. The message we are trying to share with the Indians and the Pakistanis, at least on a track 2, which is a nongovernmental arena, is to say – okay, you think of these weapons as new and interesting, and as a development in your nuclear arsenals, let us share what our reality has been with these weapons. We are all at different stages, at least in terms of the nuclear weapons development.
But more broadly to your question on perceptions, I think we need… and scientists are certainly working hard at this and one of my colleagues on the Science and Security Board, Richard Summerville has spent a lot of time on this, which is: taking the data, all that massive amount of data and making it understandable, so that we are all starting from the same baseline. In climate change, you know, we all have different weather patterns, but we have to look at the entire globe and over decades and hundreds of years to really understand what is happening. So, you have to put your own very short-term, very personal perspective aside for the moment and consider what is actually good for the planet.
Thank you! I totally and utterly agree. But I think that perception is the key issue. And if we all were able to understand one thing in the same way wherever we live and whatever political and security system we pay allegiance to, I think that we’d be half-way to moving the hand of the clock back from near midnight. On the nuclear issue again, we lived in the Cold War up till 20 years ago. I’d like to hear your opinion, were things somewhat simpler then? I mean, we knew where we are. We had two superpowers and there was so much tension in the air, that if a local conflict should break out, it was somehow solved. But now, in this post-Cold War world, it almost seems to be more dangerous. And one of the reasons is because we've got India and Pakistan, and the new Asian powers, and now Central Asian powers which are proliferating nuclear weapons. Is the fact that we are living in the post-Cold War a more dangerous situation, than during the Cold War? If that isn’t an oxymoron.
Sharon Squassoni: It is so complicated. I think that there is, talking about perceptions, almost a nostalgia for the simplicity of the Cold War era, as if everything was black and white back then. The nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union didn’t eliminate a lot of conventional conflicts.
There were proxy wars all over the globe. I think we tend to forget that.
Yes, that’s right. In fact, it just put them off. And when the Cold War ended these other wars and some of the potential conflicts, which were repressed for a long time, broke out.
Sharon Squassoni: Exactly! You know, the difference today is that, yes, there are not tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that we had back then, we have scaled back considerably. We are not, by and large, on a hair-trigger alert with our cities and everything else targeted. But, remember, it is a brave new world with a lot of computer technology out there and, in the meantime, we've developed a lot of other technology that makes it very easy to reach out, whether you are talking about drone technology or official intelligence, cyber threats and all the rest of it.
So, it is a very different and complicated world where, yes, some of the threats have gone down, like the threat of massive nuclear annihilation has gone down. But I think the message that I would like to leave you with is: the threat is still out there and we need to work very hard with our Russian counterparts to reduce the risks as much as possible. And that is why, even though we have a couple of thousands of nuclear weapons, we still have to work at talking to each other, at building confidence, at continuing to draw down those nuclear weapons, because, as you’ve mentioned, there still are other countries out there (namely China, India, Pakistan, the French, the British), I mean there still are nuclear arsenals out there, that we are going to need to shrink and, hopefully, eventually, eliminate to bring that particular threat under control.