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The Globe and Mail

Resetting the Doomsday Clock: counting climate, nuclear risks

John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto and a sponsor of the Bulletin.


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the publication that for 70 years has acted as the conscience of scientists, met this week in Chicago to reset its Doomsday Clock. The hands stand at an alarming three minutes to midnight. But was anyone listening to the scientist doomsayers?

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In fact, a trio of politicians at the meeting were doing just that. Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister, attributed our avoidance of nuclear war, until now, in large measure to "dumb luck." Governor Jerry Brown of California spoke of the need to combat climate change through education and strict regulation. Former U.S. secretary of defence William Perry declared that "we are back in dark days as confrontational as those of the Cold War." The scientists were not, after all, alone.

Scientific knowledge, the Bulletin declares, has driven humanity forever from its Garden of Eden. First, the machine age brought the Industrial Revolution, and with it climate change; then, understanding of the atom gave us the nuclear peril.

The Bulletin's meeting addressed both of these existential threats. First, climate change. A UN international conference will start on Nov. 30 in Paris, the culmination of 20 years of UN discussions. Its outcome is crucial; the goal must be to cut back on fossil fuels, shift to renewable energy sources and implement conservation. Rich countries must make pledges that can be monitored. The poor need generous assistance to meet their targets.

We await similar enlightenment in regard to the threat of nuclear war. The original message of the Bulletin is in danger of being forgotten: It is that the world's nuclear arsenals are likely to be used.

The great powers, staunch nuclear abolitionists when abroad, are drunkards at home. They seek to ensure their security by improving their arsenals through trillion-dollar upgrades. Their weapons have the stated purpose of deterrence. But the nature of the weaponry – nuclear bombs, battlefield nuclear weapons, missile defences, multiple delivery systems, vast nuclear reserves – suggest a further purpose, which is fighting nuclear wars.

The United States and Russia between them possess about 15,000 nuclear weapons. Each retains more than 1,000 missiles in immediate readiness for firing. Neither is willing to renounce the option of being the first to use them. They believe, correctly, that a nuclear threat is effective only if it is real. Accordingly, they have made it real. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then-president John Kennedy estimated the risk of all-out nuclear war as 50-50. Had Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev not backed down (thereby committing political suicide) a nuclear holocaust would have ensued.

In a future confrontation we might face an opponent who approaches still closer to the nuclear brink, determined to prevail rather than surrender.

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Will we assent then to live in a world in which the most irresponsible rule? Or, alternatively, commit ourselves to further throws of the nuclear dice? Reason dictates that we chose a third way – the retreat from nuclear confrontation.

Over the Bulletin's meeting hung the question of the responsibility of the scientist. It is not enough to deliver science. The scientifically literate must read out the signs marked Danger. In Chicago this week, they were doing so.

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