The two looming existential threats to human civilization - the climate crisis and nuclear war - are typically considered separate issues. In fact, as noted here, "these threats are not isolated from one another - they are congruent." The linkage between the climate crisis and nuclear war can be seen in the underlying notion that informs all American economic and military interventions around the world - the notion that life is disposable.
Other life, of course, life elsewhere, life beyond the gaze of the American public, is disposable. It is thus "okay to cut down a forest or shorten the life of a child to strengthen the [U.S.] economy." It has certainly never troubled the American public that the lives of 20 million human beings have been extinguished elsewhere in service of an exceptionalism that sustains Americans' birthright of limitlessness and conspicuous consumption. And today, in Syria, other life, human life, is being disposed of in a conflict - so we are told - over the Assad regime, though in reality the conflict has its roots in the worsening climate crisis.
In perhaps the most authoritative commentary on the link between climate change and conflict, from The Center for Climate and Security, a newly-released report identifies 12 epicenters around the world in which the climate crisis could ignite conflict. Many of the risk epicenters stem from resource shortages and dislocated populations, and the report's authors also give consideration to an increased likelihood of nuclear war, more pandemics and tensions in the Arctic. This passage from the paper addresses the nature of the threat:
[T]he influence of rapid climatic change on natural resources must be factored into our understanding of state fragility, state sovereignty, and the world order that rests on that sovereignty. This includes rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, which will increase stresses on the critical resources underpinning national security - water, food, transport, and energy systems. If left unmanaged, these pressures can decimate livelihoods and contribute to a broad range of destabilizing trends within states, including population displacements, migration, political unrest, state fragility, internal conflict, and, potentially, state collapse. The transboundary nature of some climate impacts such as melting sea ice and migrating fish stocks in contested waters, can also increase the likelihood of conflict between states. Therefore, the threat comes not from climate change itself, but, rather, from how these changes interact with the existing security landscape - including the ability or inability of governments to effectively manage rapid change, ensure security and prosperity for their publics, and maintain their legitimacy.
The convergence of these twin perils has also been recognized in south Asia. In his Riverside Church lecture, reproduced in full on this page, Professor Noam Chomsky identified the looming struggle for water between India and Pakistan, and the potential for it to lead to a nuclear exchange. In a short video from the People's Climate March, Dr. Ira Helmand echoes the same concern:
"The real problem with climate change is that this is going to make large sections of the planet essentially uninhabitable. When that happens there's going to be terrible conflict. We're going to see forced migrations far greater than anything we've seen in recent times, and the potential for conflict is particularly severe in a number of parts of the world that are armed with nuclear weapons. We're particularly concerned about south Asia. India and Pakistan share a watershed in the Indus River valley which is going to be depleted as climate change progresses. Hundreds of millions of people are going to be competing for what little water is left. Both of these countries have nuclear weapons. I think many people who look at the climate problem feel this is in fact the biggest problem we face. This is going to lead to conflict, and quite probably to nuclear conflict, and that's how climate change is really going to affect civilization."
The urgency of our peril is forcefully characterized in the annual posting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, commonly referred to as "The Doomsday Clock." Climate change and nuclear war are the threats now at the heart of this report, though the ascendancy of His Orangeness to the White House elicited special mention in the 2017 report (reproduced below). Trump's own statements were cited as a particular cause for concern:
"Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science."
America under OT has retained its place of prominence in the increasing threat assessment of the 2018 report:
But there has also been a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions. In 2017, the United States backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges.
The 2018 Statement began by noting that in the year previous, "world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change," causing the world's security situation to become yet more dangerous than it was in 2017 and more dangerous than at any time since 1953.
"Divorcing public policy from empirical reality endangers us all." In announcing the 2018 Doomsday Clock setting, The Bulletin's President and CEO Rachel Bronson and her team noted that the Clock represents their assessment of two fundamental questions:
is the future of civilization safer, or at greater risk, than it was last year?
is the future of civilization safer, or at greater risk, compared to the more than 7 decades that we’ve been asking the question?
The original focus of the Clock was on nuclear weapons and nuclear war, but starting in 2007 climate change was more prominently featured as a direct challenge to life on earth as we know it. Today, technological innovation in biology, artificial intelligence, and cyber all challenge society’s ability to keep pace.
We provide below the transcribed remarks of Bronson and her Bulletin team at the January 25th broadcast news event announcing the setting of the 2018 Doomsday Clock...
The Bulletin’s mission remains to manage Pandora’s box of modern science, and to advocate for the public policies that will promote scientific advancement while minimizing its risk. The last time the Doomsday Clock was at 2 minutes to midnight was when the U.S. and Soviets were testing their hydrogen bombs, and as distant as 17 minutes to in 1971 when they were actively engaged in arms control negotiations.
The move in 2017 from 3 minutes to 2 ½ minutes to midnight reflected a darkening security landscape characterized by an increasing recklessness around nuclear rhetoric, and increasing attacks on experts and expertise worldwide at the exact moment such expertise is needed to confront mankind’s truly vexing challenges.
This year the Bulletin approached its discussions knowing the Clock was edging ever-closer to midnight. The board weighed events in 2017 against events in 2016 and the past 70 years. In this year’s discussions, nuclear issues took centre stage yet again. To call the world’s nuclear situation “dire” is to understate the danger, and its immediacy. We considered the ossified state of arms control negotiations and non-proliferation agreements, as well as new testing by North Korea, nuclear exercises built into Russia’s military plans, and enhanced commitment to nuclear weapons in Pakistan, India and China.
There is little doubt but that the risk of nuclear weapons may be used - intentionally, or through miscalculation - grew last year around the globe. We’re seeing that all the major weapons states are investing in their nuclear arsenals. North Korea's nuclear missile tests demonstrate an accelerating and successful program of building a new generation of weapons of mass destruction. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, the emphasis on nuclear and missile capability grows, conventional force imbalances and destabilizing plans for nuclear weapons use early in any conflict, continue to plague the subcontinent. The nuclear arsenals of all the major weapons states are being updated and imbued with enhanced capabilities. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review appears likely to increase the types and roles of nuclear weapons, and to use defense plans to lower the threshold for nuclear use.
America's allies and adversaries alike are being forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from a U.S. administration weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals, and unable to develop, coordinate and clearly communicate a coherent foreign – much less nuclear – policy. This inconsistency constitutes a major challenge for deterrence. Alliance management in global stability has made the existing nuclear risks greater than necessary, and added to their complexity.
Arms control treaties and non-proliferation agreements are mechanisms that nuclear-weapons states – and non-nuclear-weapons states alike – rely upon to help provide transparency, predictability and stability for regional and global security. Last year, several elements of this key architecture have come under fire. U.S.-Russia arms control is a key element, since both countries together still possess about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. And without bilateral progress there is little incentive for others to move forward. However, for the first time in many years, in fact no U.S.-Russia nuclear arms negotiations are underway. And if the draft U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is any guide to U.S. policy, there will be no U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control negotiations for the foreseeable future. Instead, we could see a return to a nuclear arms race.
Russian officials – including an early call from Vladimir Putin to President Trump – consistently have asked to extend the New Start Treaty for another five years to 2026. For those of you who are not familiar with it, this treaty limits deployed missiles and bombers to 700, deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, and deployed and non-deployed launchers to 800. Extending New Start is an easy and positive step to take, but it hasn’t been done, and the draft Nuclear Posture Review pointedly notes it can be extended, but then is silent on the value of the treaty or whether it should be extended. The landmark Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty is on the rocks – for four years both sides have alleged violations but Russia last year actually fielded a ground-launched cruise missile that violates the treaty. The U.S. has stated it will remain in compliance, but the Nuclear Posture Review puts Russia on notice that the status quo is untenable.
More broadly, the Nuclear Posture Review describes the reemergence of great power competition and blames Russia for rebuffing U.S. overtures on follow-on negotiations for New Start - for example on tactical nuclear weapons. It elevates the reported Russian interest in limited nuclear weapons use to a strategic imperative, and concludes that the only response is more U.S. nuclear weapons.
Russia, for its part, has engaged in provocative and illegal behaviours thought to be part of cold war history. Whether these are egregious violations of state sovereignty in Ukraine, or aggressive military maneuvers on the borders on NATO, they could precipitate crises. The Nuclear Posture Review declares that Russia has not only violated that INF treaty, but also the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, the Helsinki Accords, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the list goes on. In the words of the Nuclear Posture Review, the cold war is over, but its language on tailored deterrence for Russia is as harsh as any during the cold war. With U.S.-Russian relations so strained, there is little room for progress anywhere else. Which brings us to the Iran Nuclear deal.
President Trump has been consistent in his dislike of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which puts additional constraints on Iran’s capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, most of all producing and stockpiling fissile material for bombs. In October Trump did not certify to Congress, as required by U.S. law, that Iran was in compliance with the deal. But Congress was unable to pass legislation that would provide an alternative approach. And earlier this month Trump continued to weigh sanctions but also called upon the Europeans to craft a supplementary deal by May. President Trump himself has never offered a single viable alternative, but so far, hasn’t been willing to unilaterally pull out of the deal as he has threatened. Nonetheless, this is hardly a recipe for predictability and stability going forward.
Other multi-lateral agreements are in trouble. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty turns 50-years-old in 2020. Twenty-five years ago, in exchange for the indefinite extension of the treaty, the nuclear weapons states promised to conclude a nuclear test ban, an end to the production of fissile material for weapons, a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, and in general progress toward reducing the risks of nuclear weapons. Well, as you know, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed 20 years ago, but still hasn’t entered into force. And no longer does the U.S. promise not to test nuclear weapons until the CTBT enters into force, but instead the new Nuclear Posture Review states that the U.S. will not resume nuclear testing “unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons.”
Finally, the 2020 reivew of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will not be pretty, in spite of the conclusion last year of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, commonly known as the Ban Treaty. For the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, ICAN won a Nobel Peace Prize in its efforts related to the Ban Treaty, and more than 50 states have signed it so far – nuclear weapons states, on the other hand, boycotted the negotiations and have rejected it. We need more than symbolic victories to achieve a safer more secure future. We need to do more.
While the main impetus for this year’s forward movement of the Clock was the perilous nuclear situation, climate change very much remains a serious and worsening threat. Indeed, it has helped to bring us as close to midnight as we have ever been at any time during the nuclear age. In 1953, when the Clock was last at two minutes to midnight, climate change was a distant hypothetical threat. Since that time, carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels that we’ve dumped into the atmosphere has increase six-fold. And, not surprisingly, the Earth has warmed as a consequence, now by about 1 degree centigrade.
This might not sound like much, but let me put in perspective – during the depths of the last Ice Age, the Earth was only around five degrees colder than it is now. A five-degree temperature change was enough to completely transform the surface of the Earth. Seas were 400 feet lower, coastlines were radically altered, and large areas of land – about a quarter of the Earth’s land mass, including where major cities now stand – were covered by ice sheets miles thick. We do not want to risk warming the Earth by an amount even remotely close to another five degrees. We do not want to risk pushing the Earth toward to the opposite of an ice age, whatever unimaginable hell that might mean.
Even at only 1 degree of warming, humankind is witnessing and suffering the impacts. This past year saw truly cataclysmic damage in the Caribbean from exceedingly powerful hurricanes, damage from which it will take years - if not generations - to recover. This year visited extreme heat waves across the globe – Australia, Europe, Asia, the Americas. Both the U.S. and Canada suffered devastating wildfires, exacerbated by extreme drought. And the Arctic ice cap, which we rely on to reflect sunlight and keep the Earth’s temperature stable, reached its smallest ever winter maximum in 2017, a record now broken for three years running. In other words, we have kicked off feedbacks that are amplifying our own failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Unfortunately, climate impacts such as these will worsen before things get better. But what can improve, what can move us further from midnight, is a shift in our willingness, our ability and our effectiveness at reducing emissions to head off the worst climate impacts, and at managing what climate impacts that are now unavoidable. Though this path is open to us, 2017 did not yield encouraging progress. After having plateaued for a few years, global greenhouse gas emissions resumed their stubborn rise.
Here in the U.S., the incoming President Trump promptly appointed a cadre of avowed climate denialists to top positions and quickly started reversing existing climate measures. And, of course, he also formally declared his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In other words, the U.S. president has done his best to follow through on his stated intention of derailing U.S. climate action.
But thankfully, these potentially corrosive moves have not been as undermining as we might have feared. They did not cause an unravelling of global resolve to address climate change. Rather, other countries reaffirmed their commitment to global climate cooperation, and acknowledged that more must be done, not less. In the words of French president Macron, “we must make our planet great again.” Within the U.S. as well, there remains a strong commitment to take climate change seriously, as is most clearly seen in the vibrant “we are still in” movement, counting more than 1,700 businesses, 250 cities, 200 communities of faith, and 9 states (and growing) already representing more than 40 percent of the U.S. population, spanning blue and red regions of the country. So, there is indeed room for hope - hope that citizens will mobilize and compel their leaders to once again respect science, heed the facts, and make rational choices that move us further from the brink.
Recently the former Secretary of Defense William Perry described the current world situation as follows:
“Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the cold war, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
This is reflected in part, by the fact that the Bulletin’s Clock now stands at two minutes to midnight, which I want to emphasize is as close as it has ever been to midnight in the 71-year history of the Clock.
The danger of nuclear conflagration is not the only reason the Clock has been moved forward. This danger looms at a time when there has been a loss of trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves, all of which exacerbate the difficulty of dealing with the real problems the world faces, and which threaten to undermine the ability of governments to effectively deal with these problems. The existential threats that the Bulletin focusses on are ones of humanity’s own making. Nuclear weapons and human-generating climate change agents are two examples.
Like these, the abuse of information, which is at the base of the loss of trust I’ve described, is also a product of human technology - information technology and global reliance on the internet are two key factors. As for the case of biological change agents, we need to seek better ways of controlling malignant developments. World leaders need to seek better collective methods of managing these technological advances so that positive aspects of new technologies are encouraged and malign uses discovered and countered. The international community needs to establish new protocols to discourage and penalize the misuse of information technology to undermine public trust and political institutions, the media and science, and the existence of objective reality itself.
As a scientist studying cyber-crime recently informed me, one of the hardest aspects of tracking perpetrators across national borders is the inability to share information across these borders. Individual countries may benefit financially from internet traffic channeled through their national infrastructures, including traffic generating false news or dangerous worms. There is a reluctance to threaten this financial windfall. Recognizing this, we have to explore new international institutions that can assist countries in protecting their own information infrastructures, and at the same time reduce the incentives that thwart attempts to head off malicious attacks.
We also need greater collaboration to create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially malign or catastrophic misuses of new technologies, particularly as regards to autonomous weaponry. As machine learning capabilities develop it is inevitable that some of these capabilities will be weaponized. We need to understand the possibilities of this, and the possible time scales, and also to ensure a chain of command and control that allows human democratic institutions to ultimately make decisions about the use of weapons – both real and virtual – on the battlefield, and in the nuclear arena. In a related vein, we need mechanisms to control the proliferation of cyberweapons that are being developed by nationstates, some of which can fall – and have fallen – into the hands of terrorist eager to disrupt national economies and infrastructures.
Even as we work to create new institutions to deal with these emerging threats, we need to remake the institutional infrastructure associated with the control of nuclear weapons. As has been described, for the first time in recent memory, there are no active high-level nuclear arms discussions between the United States and Russia. Nuclear arms reductions have stalled and, has been pointed out, there is no successor or extension to the New Start Treaty being discussed. Even as the United States and Russia may try to work to discourage nuclear weapons testing in North Korea, we must remember that the United States – while a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – has, along with China, Egypt, Iran and Israel, not yet ratified it. And while they work to discourage proliferation in North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan, we must emphasize that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear weapons states are obliged to work actively to disarm. Instead, the United States and Russia are both discussing enlarging and diversifying their nuclear weapons arsenal.
Finally, at the highest levels of the U.S. government, great effort and expense of time has been devoted to debates and concerns over things like an imaginary wall designed to keep out what many people feel is an imaginary threat. Yet the very real threats of nuclear war and climate change are not being dealt with seriously at the same time. In fact, these threats are coupled to the same socio-political concerns that are driving some of the current debates in Congress. For example, climate change – which will impact agrarian societies in Central and South America, as well as low-lying areas in South Asia, Bangladesh and the Pacific – will produce a flood of immigrants to the United States and Australia that will dwarf that which is currently the cause of so much concern in these countries. The media, too, plays a role here, focusing on political infighting in Congress, or on salacious news about scandals in Congress, Hollywood and the White House, which distract from reporting on the significant long-term threats that help guide public interest away from serious discussion about these threats.
More generally, and to return to the theme at the beginning of my remarks, divorcing public policy from empirical reality endangers us all. As has been said, what we need is evidence-based policy making, not policy-based evidence making. All of these I’ve discussed have led to an institutional breakdown of infrastructure. For example, for the first time in over fifty years, since the position was created, there is no Presidential Science Advisor. And, while my colleagues have addressed the lack of a diplomatic corps at the current time, the same is true in the science and technology arena. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is essentially unstaffed. The official mechanisms to tie public policy to reality are currently absent.
The Bulletin has been led to once again to move the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight because, ultimately, governments and international institutions, and to some extent the media, are not dealing adequately together with the serious global problems we face. We therefore return again with a plea to the people of the world: if governments are not acting to protect you as they should, you need to take the lead, you need to demand action. It is not yet midnight, and we have moved back from the brink in the past. Whether we do so in the future may be in your hands. On This Page The Doomsday Clock Statement is a must-read. We reproduce both the 2017 and 2018 documents below to bring this sobering commentary to the fore. There seems little doubt the growing alarm that informs the last two Statements has been driven, in large part, by the inept leadership of His Orangeness.
The remainder of the page is devoted to the views of Noam Chomsky, who has become a powerful voice on matters of our collective survival.
The 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement
"It is two minutes to midnight."
Statement from the President and CEO The year just past proved perilous and chaotic, a year in which many of the risks foreshadowed in our last Clock statement came into full relief. In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.
Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists focuses on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging technologies the nuclear landscape takes center stage in this year’s Clock statement. Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing.
As you will see in the discussion that follows, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board has once again assessed progress - actually, lack thereof - in managing the technologies that can bring humanity both relief and harm. It is my hope that the statement focuses world attention on today’s dangerous trajectory and urges leaders and citizens alike to redouble their efforts in committing to a path that advances the health and safety of the planet. The Board has provided recommendations for how we might go about achieving this end, and it is urgent that we take heed.
I commend the members of the Science and Security Board for the work they undertake every day to put us on a safer footing. As always, John Mecklin’s talented pen has helped pull together wide-ranging contributions and allowed a large group of engaged experts to speak with one voice. The Bulletin couldn’t serve its proper role without financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the MacArthur Foundation, and the many other foundations, corporations, and individuals who contribute regularly to the Bulletin’s mission. We are deeply grateful for this ongoing support.
It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.
Rachel Bronson, PhD President & CEO 25 January, 2018 Chicago, IL
It is now two minutes to midnight. Editor’s note: Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.
To: Leaders and citizens of the world Re: Two minutes to midnight Date: January 25, 2018
In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago - and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.
The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.
But the dangers brewing on the Korean Peninsula were not the only nuclear risks evident in 2017: The United States and Russia remained at odds, continuing military exercises along the borders of NATO, undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), upgrading their nuclear arsenals, and eschewing arms control negotiations.
In the Asia-Pacific region, tensions over the South China Sea have increased, with relations between the United States and China insufficient to re-establish a stable security situation.
In South Asia, Pakistan and India have continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons.
And in the Middle East, uncertainty about continued US support for the landmark Iranian nuclear deal adds to a bleak overall picture.
To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger - and its immediacy.
On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now. Global carbon dioxide emissions have not yet shown the beginnings of the sustained decline towards zero that must occur if ever-greater warming is to be avoided. The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable, and so far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge. Beyond the nuclear and climate domains, technological change is disrupting democracies around the world as states seek and exploit opportunities to use information technologies as weapons, among them internet-based deception campaigns aimed at undermining elections and popular confidence in institutions essential to free thought and global security.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board believes the perilous world security situation just described would, in itself, justify moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.
But there has also been a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions. In 2017, the United States backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges. Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions - or understand when US pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surreal sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening.
Because of the extraordinary danger of the current moment, the Science and Security Board today moves the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes to midnight - the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War. The Science and Security Board hopes this resetting of the Clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant - as an urgent warning of global danger. The time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past. The time for the citizens of the world to demand such action is now: #rewindtheDoomsdayClock.
The untenable nuclear threat. The risk that nuclear weapons may be used - intentionally or because of miscalculation - grew last year around the globe.
North Korea has long defied UN Security Council resolutions to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but the acceleration of its tests in 2017 reflects new resolve to acquire sophisticated nuclear weapons. North Korea has or soon will have capabilities to match its verbal threats - specifically, a thermonuclear warhead and a ballistic missile that can carry it to the US mainland. In September, North Korea tested what experts assess to be a true two-stage thermonuclear device, and in November, it tested the Hwasong-15 missile, which experts believe has a range of over 8,000 kilometers. The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, responded with more frequent and larger military exercises, while China and Russia proposed a freeze by North Korea of nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a freeze in US exercises.
The failure to secure a temporary freeze in 2017 was unsurprising to observers of the downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The failure to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program will reverberate not just in the Asia-Pacific, as neighboring countries review their security options, but more widely, as all countries consider the costs and benefits of the international framework of nonproliferation treaties and agreements.
Nuclear risks have been compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation. Coordination on nuclear risk reduction is all but dead, and no solution to disputes over the INF Treaty - a landmark agreement to rid Europe of medium-range nuclear missiles - is readily apparent. Both sides allege violations, but Russia’s deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile, if not addressed, could trigger a collapse of the treaty. Such a collapse would make what should have been a relatively easy five-year extension of the New START arms control pact much harder to achieve and could terminate an arms control process that dates back to the early 1970s.
For the first time in many years, in fact, no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations are under way. New strategic stability talks begun in April are potentially useful, but so far they lack the energy and political commitment required for them to bear fruit. More important, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and semi-covert support of separatists in eastern Ukraine have sparked concerns that Russia will support similar “hybrid” conflicts in new NATO members that it borders - actions that could provoke a crisis at almost any time. Additional clash points could emerge if Russia attempts to exploit friction between the United States and its NATO partners, whether arising from disputes on burden-sharing, European Union membership, and trade - or relating to policies on Israel, Iran, and terrorism in the Middle East.
In the past year, US allies have needed reassurance about American intentions more than ever. Instead, they have been forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from a US administration weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals, suffering from turnover in senior leadership, led by an undisciplined and disruptive president, and unable to develop, coordinate, and clearly communicate a coherent nuclear policy. This inconsistency constitutes a major challenge for deterrence, alliance management, and global stability. It has made the existing nuclear risks greater than necessary and added to their complexity.
Especially in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, allies are perplexed. While President Trump has steadfastly opposed the agreement that his predecessor and US allies negotiated to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he has never successfully articulated practical alternatives. His instruction to Congress in 2017 to legislate a different approach resulted in a stalemate. The future of the Iran deal, at this writing, remains uncertain.
In the United States, Russia, and elsewhere around the world, plans for nuclear force modernization and development continue apace. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review appears likely to increase the types and roles of nuclear weapons in US defense plans and lower the threshold to nuclear use. In South Asia, emphasis on nuclear and missile capabilities grows. Conventional force imbalances and destabilizing plans for nuclear weapons use early in any conflict continue to plague the subcontinent.
Reflecting long decades of frustration with slow progress toward nuclear disarmament, states signed a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the ban treaty, at the United Nations this past September. The treaty - championed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work - is a symbolic victory for those seeking a world without nuclear weapons and a strong expression of the frustration with global disarmament efforts to date. Predictably, countries with nuclear weapons boycotted the negotiations, and none has signed the ban treaty. Their increased reliance on nuclear weapons, threats, and doctrines that could make the use of those weapons more likely stands in stark contrast to the expectations of the rest of the world.
An insufficient response to climate change. Last year, the US government pursued unwise and ineffectual policies on climate change, following through on a promise to derail past US climate policies. The Trump administration, which includes avowed climate denialists in top positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and other key agencies, has announced its plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In its rush to dismantle rational climate and energy policy, the administration has ignored scientific fact and well-founded economic analyses. These US government climate decisions transpired against a backdrop of worsening climate change and high-impact weather-related disasters. This year past, the Caribbean region and other parts of North America suffered a season of historic damage from exceedingly powerful hurricanes. Extreme heat waves occurred in Australia, South America, Asia, Europe, and California, with mounting evidence that heat-related illness and death are correspondingly increasing. The Arctic ice cap achieved its smallest-ever winter maximum in 2017, the third year in a row that this record has been broken. The United States has witnessed devastating wildfires, likely exacerbated by extreme drought and subsequent heavy rains that spurred underbrush growth. When the data are assessed, 2017 is almost certain to continue the trend of exceptional global warmth: All the warmest years in the instrumental record, which extends back to the 1800s, have - excepting one year in the late 1990s - occurred in the 21st century.
Despite the sophisticated disinformation campaign run by climate denialists, the unfolding consequences of an altered climate are a harrowing testament to an undeniable reality: The science linking climate change to human activity - mainly the burning of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - is sound. The world continues to warm as costly impacts mount, and there is evidence that overall rates of sea level rise are accelerating - regardless of protestations to the contrary.
Especially against these trends, it is heartening that the US government’s defection from the Paris Agreement did not prompt its unravelling or diminish its support within the United States at large. The “We Are Still In” movement signals a strong commitment within the United States - by some 1,700 businesses, 250 cities, 200 communities of faith, and nine states, representing more than 40 percent of the US population - to its international climate commitments and to the validity of scientific facts.
This reaffirmation is reassuring, and other countries have maintained their steadfast support for climate action, reconfirmed their commitments to global climate cooperation, and clearly acknowledged that more needs to be done. French President Emmanuel Macron’s sober message to global leaders assembled at December’s global climate summit in Paris was a reality check after the heady climate negotiations his country hosted two years earlier: “We’re losing the battle. We’re not moving quickly enough. We all need to act.” And indeed, after plateauing for a few years, greenhouse gas emissions resumed their stubborn rise in 2017.
As we have noted before, the true measure of the Paris Agreement is whether nations actually fulfill their pledges to cut emissions, strengthen those pledges, and see to it that global greenhouse gas emissions start declining in short order and head toward zero. As we drift yet farther from this goal, the urgency of shifting course becomes greater, and the existential threat posed by climate change looms larger.
Emerging technologies and global risk. The Science and Security Board is deeply concerned about the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves - a loss that the abuse of information technology has fostered. Attempts to intervene in elections through sophisticated hacking operations and the spread of disinformation have threatened democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to reach reasonable decisions on public policy - including policy relating to nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global threats. Meanwhile, corporate leaders in the information domain, including established media outlets and internet companies such as Facebook and Google, have been slow to adopt protocols to prevent misuse of their services and protect citizens from manipulation. The international community should establish new measures that discourage and penalize all cross-border subversions of democracy.
Last year, the Science and Security Board warned that “[t]echnological innovation is occurring at a speed that challenges society’s ability to keep pace. While limited at the current time, potentially existential threats posed by a host of emerging technologies need to be monitored, and to the extent possible anticipated, as the 21st century unfolds.”
If anything, the velocity of technological change has only increased in the past year, and so our warning holds for 2018. But beyond monitoring advances in emerging technology, the board believes that world leaders also need to seek better collective methods of managing those advances, so the positive aspects of new technologies are encouraged and malign uses discovered and countered. The sophisticated hacking of the “Internet of Things,” including computer systems that control major financial and power infrastructure and have access to more than 20 billion personal devices; the development of autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision; and the possible misuse of advances in synthetic biology, including the revolutionary Crispr gene-editing tool, already pose potential global security risks. Those risks could expand without strong public institutions and new management regimes. The increasing pace of technological change requires faster development of those tools.
How to turn back the Clock. In 1953, former Manhattan Project scientist and Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch set the hands of the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, writing, “The achievement of a thermonuclear explosion by the Soviet Union, following on the heels of the development of ‘thermonuclear devices’ in America, means that the time, dreaded by scientists since 1945, when each major nation will hold the power of destroying, at will, the urban civilization of any other nation, is close at hand.”
The Science and Security Board now again moves the hands of the Clock to two minutes before midnight. But the current, extremely dangerous state of world affairs need not be permanent. The means for managing dangerous technology and reducing global-scale risk exist; indeed, many of them are well-known and within society’s reach, if leaders pay reasonable attention to preserving the long-term prospects of humanity, and if citizens demand that they do so.
This is a dangerous time, but the danger is of our own making. Humankind has invented the implements of apocalypse; so can it invent the methods of controlling and eventually eliminating them. This year, leaders and citizens of the world can move the Doomsday Clock and the world away from the metaphorical midnight of global catastrophe by taking these common-sense actions:
US President Donald Trump should refrain from provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea, recognizing the impossibility of predicting North Korean reactions.
The US and North Korean governments should open multiple channels of communication. At a minimum, military-to-military communications can help reduce the likelihood of inadvertent war on the Korean Peninsula. Keeping diplomatic channels open for talks without preconditions is another common-sense way to reduce tensions. As leading security expert Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University recently wrote: “Such talks should not be seen as a reward or concession to Pyongyang, nor construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. They could, however, deliver the message that while Washington fully intends to defend itself and its allies from any attack with a devastating retaliatory response, it does not otherwise intend to attack North Korea or pursue regime change."
The world community should pursue, as a short-term goal, the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests. North Korea is the only country to violate the norm against nuclear testing in 20 years. Over time, the United States should seek North Korea’s signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - and then, along with China, at long last also ratify the treaty.
The Trump administration should abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s nuclear program unless credible evidence emerges that Iran is not complying with the agreement or Iran agrees to an alternative approach that meets US national security needs.
The United States and Russia should discuss and adopt measures to prevent peacetime military incidents along the borders of NATO. Provocative military exercises and maneuvers hold the potential for crisis escalation. Both militaries must exercise restraint and professionalism, adhering to all norms developed to avoid conflict and accidental encounters.
US and Russian leaders should return to the negotiating table to resolve differences over the INF treaty; to seek further reductions in nuclear arms; to discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; to limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and to ensure that new tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons are not built and that existing tactical weapons are never used on the battlefield.
US citizens should demand, in all legal ways, climate action from their government. Climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity. Citizens should insist that their governments acknowledge it and act accordingly.
Governments around the world should redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they go well beyond the initial, inadequate pledges under the Paris Agreement. The temperature goal under that agreement - to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels - is consistent with consensus views on climate science, is eminently achievable, and is economically viable, provided that poorer countries are given the support they need to make the post-carbon transition. But the time window for achieving this goal is rapidly closing.
The international community should establish new protocols to discourage and penalize the misuse of information technology to undermine public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Strong and accountable institutions are necessary to prevent deception campaigns that are a real threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to enact policies to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global dangers.
The countries of the world should collaborate on creating institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially malign or catastrophic misuses of new technologies, particularly as regards autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision and advances in synthetic biology that could, if misused, pose a global threat.
The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future is lamentable - but that failure can be reversed. It is two minutes to midnight, but the Doomsday Clock has ticked away from midnight in the past, and during the next year, the world can again move it further from apocalypse. The warning the Science and Security Board now sends is clear, the danger obvious and imminent. The opportunity to reduce the danger is equally clear.
The world has seen the threat posed by the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation. But there is a flip side to the abuse of social media. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world. They can #rewindtheDoomsdayClock.
The 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement
"It is two and a half minutes to midnight."
Statement from the executive director This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, a graphic that appeared on the first cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as it transitioned from a six-page, black-and- white newsletter to a full-fledged magazine. For its first cover, the editors sought an image that represented a seriousness of purpose and an urgent call for action. The Clock, and the countdown to midnight that it implied, fit the bill perfectly. The Doomsday Clock, as it came to be called, has served as a globally recognized arbiter of the planet’s health and safety ever since.
Each year, the setting of the Doomsday Clock galvanizes a global debate about whether the planet is safer or more dangerous today than it was last year, and at key moments in recent history. Our founders would not be surprised to learn that the threats to the planet that the Science and Security Board now considers have expanded since 1947. In fact, the Bulletin’s first editor, Eugene Rabinowitch, noted that one of the purposes of the Bulletinwas to respond and offer solutions to the “Pandora’s box of modern science,” recognizing the speed at which technological advancement was occurring, and the demanding questions it would present.
In 1947 there was one technology with the potential to destroy the planet, and that was nuclear power. Today, rising temperatures, resulting from the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels, will change life on Earth as we know it, potentially destroying or displacing it from significant portions of the world, unless action is taken today, and in the immediate future. Future technological innovation in biology, artificial intelligence, and the cyber realm may pose similar global challenges. The knotty problems that innovations in these fields may present are not yet fully realized, but the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board tends to them with a watchful eye.
This year’s Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual. On the big topics that concern the board, world leaders made too little progress in the face of continuing turbulence. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways. As if to prove that words matter and fake news is dangerous, Pakistan’s foreign minister issued a blustery statement, a tweet actually, flexing Pakistan’s nuclear muscle - in response to a fabricated “news” story about Israel. Today’s complex global environment is in need of deliberate and considered policy responses. It is ever more important that senior leaders across the globe calm rather than stoke tensions that could lead to war, either by accident or miscalculation.
I once again commend the board for approaching its task with the seriousness it deserves. Bulletin Editor-in-Chief John Mecklin did a remarkable job pulling together this document and reflecting the in-depth views and opinions of the board. Considerable thanks goes to our supporters including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, David Weinberg and Jerry Newton, as well as valued supporters across the year.
I hope the debate engendered by the 2017 setting of the Clock raises the level of conversation, promotes calls to action, and helps citizens around the world hold their leaders responsible for delivering a safer and healthier planet.
Rachel Bronson, PhD Executive Director and Publisher 26 January, 2017 Chicago, IL
Editor's note. Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.
To: Leaders and citizens of the world Re: It is 30 seconds closer to midnight Date: January 26, 2017 Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change. The United States and Russia - which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons - remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases.
The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal - but only somewhat. In the wake of the landmark Paris climate accord, the nations of the world have taken some actions to combat climate change, and global carbon dioxide emissions were essentially at in 2016, compared to the previous year. Still, they have not yet started to decrease; the world continues to warm. Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris - yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech.
This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board takes a broad and international view of existential threats to humanity, focusing on long-term trends. Because of that perspective, the statements of a single person - particularly one not yet in office - have not historically influenced the board’s decision on the setting of the Doomsday Clock.
But wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats do affect the board’s decisions. And this year, events surrounding the U.S. presidential campaign - including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the U.S. election - have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago. For these reasons, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistshas decided to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight.
The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute - something it has never before done - reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the U.S. president only a matter of days. Many of his cabinet nominations are not yet con rmed by the Senate or installed in government, and he has had little time to take official action.
Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science.
In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.
Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensified - yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.
Who will lead humanity away from global disaster?
A dangerous nuclear situation on multiple fronts. Predictability and continuity are often prized when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, because the results of miscommunication or miscalculation could be so catastrophic. Last year, however, the nuclear weapons continuity most in evidence was negative: North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons development, the steady march of arsenal modernization programs in the nuclear weapon states, simmering tension between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and stagnation in arms control.
North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests, the second, in September, yielding about twice the explosive power of the first, in January. Pyongyang also relentlessly tested missiles, achieving a rate of about two launches per month in 2016. In his 2017 New Year’s statement, Kim Jong-un declared he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range. The UN Security Council passed new sanctions against North Korea in November 2016 in an e ort to further limit the country’s access to cash, but there is no guarantee those sanctions will succeed where others have failed.
Meanwhile, Russia is building new silo-based missiles, the new Borei class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines, and new rail-mobile missiles as it revamps other intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States forges ahead with plans to modernize each part of its triad (bombers, land-based missiles, and missile- carrying submarines), adding new capabilities, such as cruise missiles with increased ranges. As it improves the survivability of its own nuclear forces, China is helping Pakistan build submarine platforms. And Pakistan and India continue to expand the number of weapons in and the sophistication of their nuclear arsenals.
Elsewhere, nuclear volatility has been (and remains) the order of the day. While the U.S. president-elect engaged in casual talk about nuclear weapons, suggesting South Korea and Japan acquire their own nuclear weapons to compete with North Korea, other countries voted in the United Nations to move forward toward a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, passing Resolution L41. In 2017, those states will convene to consider a nuclear weapons ban, presumably without the 38 countries - including the United States and a number of its allies - that voted against the ban. A ban would be merely symbolic without the participation or input of countries that have nuclear weapons. But this approach - which circumvents traditional, often glacial efforts like the Conference on Disarmament - reflects long-held frustration with the slow pace of progress toward nuclear disarmament. The world saw the 20th anniversary of the first signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty pass in 2016; the treaty still awaits its entry into force. The Iran nuclear deal has been successful in accomplishing its goals during its rst year, but its future is in doubt under the Trump administration. No firm plans have been made to extend the nuclear security summit process. Disputes over Ukraine, Syria, ballistic missile defenses in Europe, and election interference have the United States and Russia at loggerheads, with little if any prospect that nuclear arms reduction negotiations will resume.
Progress in reducing the overall threat of nuclear war has stalled - and in many ways, gone into reverse. This state of a airs poses a clear and urgent threat to civilization, and citizens around the world should demand that their leaders quickly address and lessen the danger.
The clear need for climate action. Global efforts to limit climate change have produced mixed results over the last year. The Paris Agreement went into effect in 2016, and countries are taking some actions to bring down emissions of greenhouse gases. There are encouraging signs that global annual emissions were at this past year, though there is no assurance this heralds a break point. If the global economy has weaned itself from exponentially growing emissions rates, that would indeed be a major accomplishment.
But because carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, net emissions must eventually be put on a trajectory to reach zero if global warming is to be stemmed. The longer it takes to shift toward that trajectory, the greater the warming - and consequences - that current and future generations will face. The true success of the Paris Agreement should be measured against a strict criterion: Do the next steps in its implementation bring about the reductions of carbon dioxide emissions necessary to keep world temperatures from reaching levels that: threaten catastrophic sea level rise; change rainfall patterns and therefore threaten agriculture; increase storm severity; reduce biodiversity; and alter ocean chemistry (among the many negative impacts that unchecked global warming will cause)?
The continued warming of the world measured in 2016 underscores one clear fact: Nothing is fundamentally amiss with the scientific understanding of climate physics. The burning of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere; carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, inhibiting the radiation of heat into space. The relationship between increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and increased terrestrial temperature has been researched for decades, and national science academies around the world agree: Human activity is the primary cause of climate change, and unless carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically reduced, global warming will threaten the future of humanity.
In 2016, however, the international community did not take the steps needed to begin the path toward a net zero-carbon-emissions world. The Marrakech Climate Change Conference, for instance, produced little progress beyond the emissions goals pledged under the Paris Accord.
The political situation in the United States is of particular concern. The Trump transition team has put forward candidates for cabinet-level positions (especially at the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department) who foreshadow the possibility that the new administration will be openly hostile to progress toward even the most modest efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption.
Climate change should not be a partisan political issue. The well-established physics of Earth’s carbon cycle is neither liberal nor conservative in character. The planet will continue to warm to dangerous levels so long as carbon dioxide continues to be pumped into the atmosphere - regardless of who is chosen to lead the United States or any other country. International leaders need to refocus their attention on achieving the additional carbon emission reductions that are needed to capitalize on the promise of the Paris Accord. In the United States, as a very first step, the Trump administration needs to make a clear, unequivocal statement that it accepts climate change, caused by human activity, as a scientific reality. No problem can be solved, unless its existence is recognized.
Nuclear power: An option worth careful consideration. During the last half of the 20th century, the most profound existential threat facing the world was the prospect of global nuclear holocaust, sparked by decisions made under the pressure of the very short time required for intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach their targets. In the 21st century, another existential threat looms: global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from more than 100 years of fossil fuel use. Ironically, the nuclear forces used in weapons of mass destruction can also be harnessed as a carbon-free source of energy. Splitting the atom provides a million-fold increase in energy over the simple chemical reactions that convert fossil fuels to carbon dioxide and energy. The scale of the energy potential of nuclear fission - and its capacity to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming - make nuclear power a tempting part of the solution to the climate change problem. Some 440 nuclear power plants already generate 11 percent of the world’s electricity.
In addition to its promise, however, nuclear power has safety, cost, waste, and proliferation challenges. One can argue that the number of deaths and adverse health e ects caused by nuclear power has been minimal, even when major accidents have occurred. But a single accident can change governmental policy and public attitudes toward nuclear power. That single accident can also a ect multiple countries and produce e ects that stretch over decades - as the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters have shown.
Although new nuclear power plants are being built, mainly in Asia, the scale of the e ort does not match the need for clean energy. Today’s 400-plus nuclear power plants are, on average, 30 years old. They displace some 0.5 to 0.7 gigatons of carbon each year, as compared to the 10 gigatons discharged annually from the use of fossil fuels.
To achieve just 6 percent of needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power would have to increase in capacity at least threefold during the next 50 years. This would mean adding 2,000 megawatts of capacity per month, the equivalent of a new 1 gigawatt-electric nuclear power plant every several weeks. Such growth in the use of nuclear power would also require concomitant commitments to nuclear safety, security, and waste management that are politically, technically, and intergenerationally responsible.
In the short and medium terms, governments will need to discourage the premature closure of existing reactors that are - as determined on a case-by-case basis - safe and economically viable. In the longer term, entrepreneurs will have to design and test new types of reactors that can be built quickly, and they will then have to prove to regulators that those new reactors are at least as safe as the commercial nuclear plants now operating.
It is likely that leaders in different parts of the world will make different decisions on whether their countries will or will not include nuclear power in their efforts to combat climate change. Where nuclear power is used, at a very minimum, leaders must ensure that truly independent regulatory systems and safe geological disposal repositories are created.
Potential threats from emerging technologies. In December, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to help Donald Trump in ways that highlight the vulnerability of critical information systems in cyberspace. Information monocultures, fake news, and the hacking and release of politically sensitive emails may have had an illegitimate impact on the U.S. presidential election, threatening the fabric of democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to decide the direction of public policy - including policy relating to existential threats such as nuclear weapons and climate change. If not controlled, these types of electoral attacks could be launched against democracies around the world, undermining belief in representative government and thereby endangering humanity as a whole.
Such attacks on the democratic process, however, represent just one threat associated with the modern world’s increased reliance on the internet and information technology. Sophisticated hacking - whether by private groups or governmental entities - has the potential to create grave and large impacts, threatening nancial activities and national electrical power grids and plants (including nuclear power plants) and the personal freedoms that are based on the privacy at the core of democracy.
Beyond cybersecurity, the increasing potential of autonomous machine systems - which could, for example, allow the development of efficient, self-driving cars—also opens up a new set of risks that require thoughtful management. Without good governance, including appropriate regulation, these threats could emerge in coming decades as existential - that is, dangerous to the whole of humanity or to modern civilization as we know it. Lethal autonomous weapons systems that make “kill” decisions without human input or supervision, for example, would be particularly worrisome. Advances in synthetic biology, including the Crispr gene-editing tool, also have great positive potential - and a dark side that includes the possible creation of bioweapons and other dangerous manipulations of genetic material.
Technological innovation is occurring at a speed that challenges society’s ability to keep pace. While limited at the current time, potentially existential threats posed by a host of emerging technologies need to be monitored, and to the extent possible anticipated, as the 21st century unfolds.
Reducing risk: Expert advice and citizen action. Technology continues to outpace humanity’s capacity to control it, even as many citizens lose faith in the institutions upon which they must rely to make scientific innovation work for rather than against them. Expert advice is crucial if governments are to e ectively deal with complex global threats. The Science and Security Board is extremely concerned about the willingness of governments around the world - including the incoming U.S. administration - to ignore or discount sound science and considered expertise during their decision-making processes.
Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term.
Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge. In 2016, world leaders not only failed to deal adequately with those threats; they actually increased the risk of nuclear war and unchecked climate change through a variety of provocative statements and actions, including careless rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons and the wanton de ance of scienti c truths. We call on these leaders - particularly in Russia and the United States - to refocus in the coming year on reducing existential risks and preserving humanity, in no small part by consulting with top-level experts and taking scienti c research and observed reality into account.
Because we know from experience that governmental leaders respond to public pressure, we also call on citizens of the world to express themselves in all the ways available to them - including through use of the powerful new tools of social media - to demand that:
U.S. and Russian leaders return to the negotiating table to seek further reductions in nuclear arms and to limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race. The world can be more secure with much, much smaller nuclear arsenals than now exist - if political leaders are truly interested in protecting their citizens from harm.
The United States and Russia reduce the alert levels of their nuclear weapons and use existing crisis stability mechanisms to avoid inadvertent escalation of conflict. Provocative military exercises increase the possibilities for accidental war and should cease.
Governments around the world sharply reduce their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and fulfill the Paris Accord promise of keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, or less. This temperature target is consistent with consensus views on climate science and is eminently achievable and economicallyviable, provided that poorer countries are given the support they need to make the post-carbon transition.
The Trump administration acknowledge climate change as a science-backed reality and redouble U.S. efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions and support carbon-free energy sources, including, when economically reasonable and safe over the long term, nuclear energy. It is well past time to move beyond arguments over the reality of climate change and on to solutions, including scale measures - such as carbon markets and carbon taxes or fees - that encourage efficiency and put a price on carbon emissions.
The United States, China, Russia, and other concerned nations engage with North Korea to reduce nuclear risks. Neighbors in Asia face the most urgent threat, but as North Korea improves its nuclear and missile arsenals, the threat will rapidly become global. As we said last year and repeat here: Now is not the time to tighten North Korea’s isolation but to engage seriously in dialogue.
Leaders of countries with commercial nuclear power programs deal responsibly with safety issues and with the commercial nuclear waste problem. Top experts disagree on whether an expansion of nuclear-powered electricity generation can become a major component of the effort to limit climate change. Regardless of the trajectory of the global nuclear industry, there will be a continuing need for safe and secure interim and permanent nuclear waste storage facilities and for ever-safer nuclear power plants.
The countries of the world collaborate on creating institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially malign or catastrophic misuses of new technologies. Scientific advance can provide society with great benefits. But as events surrounding the recent U.S. presidential election show, the potential for misuse of potent new technologies is real. Governmental, scientific, and business leaders need to take appropriate steps to address possibly devastating consequences of these technologies.
For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.
Noam Chomsky on the Twin Perils
Professor Noam Chomsky gave this lecture at the MIT Centre for International Studies in April of this year. In the Q & A session following this insightful lecture, Chomsky was asked what can be done by the ordinary citizen to confront the two enormous crises he identifies. The question, and Chomsky's answer, go to the heart of TheIndespensableNation, so, before you read our lightly-edited transcript of the full lecture on this page, please take a moment to read his answer to the question, 'what can be done?'
"Take a look at the [Bernie] Sanders campaign. It was a pretty astonishing achievement. For well over a century, elections have been pretty much bought; the evidence is just overwhelming; the person who has done most of the work on this is Tom Fergusson, political scientist at U Mass, Boston. His book, "Golden Rule", studies the role of campaign funding on elections and policies, going way back to the nineteenth century (see Ferguson's Golden Rule documentary here). The results are startling. He has a recent paper looking at congressional elections from 1980 to the present, comparing campaign funding with electability. It’s pretty much a straight line [correlation]; you don’t get results like that in the social sciences. And this is nothing new; back in 1895, a great campaign manager named Mark Hannah was asked what was necessary to run a successful political campaign – and he said, ‘well, you need two things, the first one is money, and I’ve forgotten what the second one is.’ That was 1895! Its gotten way more extreme since, and by now its out of sight. And after more than a century of this, somebody comes along who no one’s heard of, who uses a scare word, socialist, has no funding from the corporate sector, no wealthy backers, ridiculed or dismissed by the media, and he could easily have won the Democratic Party nomination if not for the party shenanigans to keep him out. That’s an amazing development, and it shows that while the institutions look powerful, they collapse as soon as the population becomes engaged. They are basically very weak. Actually, that’s an insight that goes back hundreds of years to David Hume, and one of the first modern works on politics called First Principles of Government. Hume opens his discussion by saying that there’s a strange paradox in governments; he says, in every government, of whatever type, people obey their rulers, and they do so because power is in the hands of the governed; and he says if they want it, they can take it; as Hume asks, ‘by what miracle is this achieved?’ and he answers ‘only by control of opinion.’ If you make people feel that they’re powerless, they will obey. If not, they won’t obey. The paradox is real – and its in people’s hands to overcome it – and the Sanders campaign is one dramatic illustration. And the alternative media, if its properly done, can be effective in change; it also affects the major media, because they have to respond to it. So the institutional structure is basically quite weak, and can easily be changed."
a lecture by Noam Chomsky...
For quite a few years I’ve been intrigued by an interesting debate that took place about twenty-five years ago between two great scientists, Carl Sagan and Ernst Meyer. They were discussing the likelihood of finding intelligent life, extraterrestrial intelligent life, and Sagan, who looked at it from the point of view of an astrophysicist, calculated the number of planets, more or less like Earth, and concluded that the chances are quite high. Meyer, looking at it as a biologist, said “We have only one test case, namely Earth, which has had about 50 billion species, and we can raise the question, ‘What are the criteria for biological success on Earth, with 50 billion cases to look at?’” He pointed out that there is a striking regularity. The species that are successful are those that mutate quickly – like bacteria – or those that have a fixed niche, like beetles – and they just stay there [in that niche] no matter what happens. As you move up the scale of intelligence, the biological success declines – there are not many mammals, there are very few apes but, by and large, biological success declines as intelligence increases.
Humans look like an exception, but that’s a statistical blip, just a tiny moment of evolutionary time …a couple thousand years, actually. So, his conclusion is, and I’ll quote him, “The history of life on Earth refutes the claim that it is better to be smart than to be stupid.” It shows, in fact, that its much better to be stupid than smart. He also points out that the average life span of a species is about a hundred thousand years – we’ve doubled it, we’re about two hundred thousand, so we’re a little beyond the expected extinction point.
Well, that’s the question I want to consider today: “Is it better to smart than stupid?” It was addressed recently by a very good Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, who has a book called “The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” And in fact our failure to address the most awesome challenge of human history – with the possible exception of nuclear weapons – is indeed a true derangement, and painful evidence for the plausibility for Meyer’s thesis that its better to be stupid than smart.
Well, these are the two existential challenges that overwhelm anything else, completely overshadow all other discussions. And their severity and their imminence is illustrated graphically by the famous Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It was initiated in 1947, right at the dawn of the nuclear age. In 2015 and again in 2016, the hand was moved forward…to three minutes to midnight. That’s the closest it had been to midnight [annihilation] since the 1980s when there was a major war scare in the early Reagan years.
The reasons that they gave were the mounting threat of nuclear war, and the failure to deal with climate change. I’ll quote, “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” That was 2016. At the outset of the Trump term, they found, “the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent,” and they moved the clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. “The clock is ticking, global danger looms.” That’s the closest to terminal disaster since 1953, when the United States and Russia exploded their H-bombs.
There is an important difference between these two existential threats. If, by some miracle, we escape nuclear disaster – and anyone who looks at the shocking record will realize that it’s a miracle that we’ve gotten this far – …at least we know in principle how to end the plague – get rid of the scourge. Global warming is different. Its inexorable. We might pass a point of no return, when the damage that we’ve done is simply uncontrollable, irreversible. And it might not be that far off.
Well, the human species, is right now, undertaking an experiment to determine the answer to Ernst Meyers’ question, “Is it better to smart than stupid?” What I’d like to do now is examine the course of the experiment, just by picking a few dates. Let’s start with today – it could be any day… If you looked at this morning’s newspapers, you’ll see a report on how we’re dealing with the two existential crises, one the nuclear threat. Christopher Ford, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass direction and counter proliferation under the Trump Administration, advises that we should reconsider the unrealistic goal of a world without nuclear weapons that has been advocated, among others, by extremist peaceniks like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nun, and William Perry. And the reason for abandoning this unrealistic goal of these utopians, is Russia’s increased aggressiveness, which is, incidentally, a charge that’s dismantled quite effectively in the current issue of a radical rag that’s worth reading now and then – Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal.
On global warming, this morning, The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that the arctic has less sea ice at winter’s end, now, than ever before. That means more dark ocean, hence more absorption of solar energy, more warming, and we’re in a feedback loop, and you know what that means. The mean temperature for November was 23 degrees above normal, and at some points in the last couple of months it went to 35 degrees warmer than normal. Well, that’s today’s good news.
Let’s go back to yesterday - a quote from the Washington Post – “Water temperatures at the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, and near South Florida, are on fire. They spurred a historically warm winter from Huston to Miami. In the Gulf, the average sea surface temperature never fell below 73 degrees over the winter for the first time on record. Galveston, Texas, has tied or broken an astonishing 33 record highs since November 1st, while neighboring Huston had its warmest winter on record. Both cities have witnessed precious few days with below normal temperatures since late fall.” And, on and on…
Well, I apologize if this is unfair, but I can’t help refrain quoting one of the comments by a reader of this news report. He says, “The Republicans have all this under control. The plan is to have Jeff Sessions, and Ted Cruz’s dad, stand at the shoreline with Bibles in hand. As the sky darkens and the water rises, they will raise their left hand, holding the Bible, and command the sea to settle. And if that fails, plan B is to run like hell and to blame Obama.” Couldn’t say it better, it’s a classic, and it captures the spirit of the times very accurately.
There was a second report yesterday, in the business press, Bloomberg Business Week. The headline was “The Oil Boom is Back,” and I’ll quote it: “The number of oil and gas rigs drilling in the United States has almost doubled since bottoming out at the lowest level in almost 75 years of records. While two dozen nations are coordinating to cut oil production and reign in the global supply glut, U.S. producers are moving in the opposite direction. Over the last four months, output increased by half a million barrels a day and, if that rate of expansion continues, the shale boom will break new production records by summer. The U.S. now produces nine million barrels a day.” We’re way in the lead.
Well, this illustrates a very crucial fact of current history. The world, outside the United States, is taking steps – halting steps, but steps – towards facing the existential challenge of survival. Meanwhile, the United States, virtually alone, is racing towards destruction with enthusiasm and dedication, which is quite a remarkable fact. Now, of course, the oil industry has plenty of help in moving as quickly as it can to destroy our chances for survival. The IMF reports that the fossil fuel industry extracts a $700 billion annual taxpayer subsidy, which is not in the crosshairs of Mike Mulvaney, I’m sure, and the industry doesn’t take chances. In 2016, it spent $117 million in campaign contributions, while fielding 720 lobbyists in Washington to make sure that Congress gets the message.
And apparently it does. There’s a recent Washington Post article which reports that “many Republicans in Congress do recognize the severe threat of climate change, but they won’t talk about it because of funding pressures from the fossil fuel industry.” That’s particularly true since Citizens United opened the floodgates, even wider, for the flood of corporate political funding, which means you toe the corporate line or you’re out. Well, that’s yesterday. These reports are quite typical of the daily fare. Pick almost any day and you find similar things.
Well, let’s continue to review the experiment that humans are undertaking. I’ll just pick a few recent dates from the last few months. Start with November 8th. That was an important day in history for several reasons. Several events took place on November 8th. One of them was very important. The second one was extremely important. And the third was absolutely astonishing.
The very important one was the election in the United States. Plenty of coverage of that so I don’t have to talk about it. The extremely important one took place in Morocco. In Morocco on November 8th, about two hundred countries were gathering at what’s called COP 22, the international conference under UN auspices to try to deal with the problem of global warming. The goal of the conference was to put some teeth into the Paris negotiations the year before, COP 21, December 2015. That conference had aimed to establish a verifiable treaty, but it couldn’t do it for one reason - the Republican Congress would not accept any binding commitments. So, therefore, the world had to settle for something less, namely, informal agreements. And COP 22 in Marrakesh, Morocco, was supposed to carry this forward. Well, on November 8th the conference began; on November 8th the World Meteorological Association delivered a report, which in their words “confirms that 2016 was the warmest year on record, a remarkable 1.1 degree centigrade above the pre-industrial period, sharply above the previous record set the year before.” In fact, approaching the desired limit that was set in Paris as the goal, and other dire reports which I won’t read but you can pick up on the internet. That was the World Meteorological Association.
But then the deliberations essentially ended. The election results came in from the United States, the conference essentially stopped, nothing more to discuss. The only question was, would it be possible to salvage anything from the wreckage, with the world’s most important country, the richest, most powerful country in world history having all three branches of government committed to racing to destruction. What could be done? There was some hope – they looked to one country as the possible savior, namely China. That was November 8th, the extremely important event. The conference went on but concluded without issue.
The third event was absolutely astonishing, namely the leader of the free world is leading the world to disaster, the world is looking to China to save it, and what’s the reaction? Silence. Not a word about it. Pick up the newspapers on November 9th, listen to BBC on November 9th, and on the days that followed, and you’ll see nothing about this. Here’s one of the most astounding events in history. The world’s most powerful country, the most powerful country in history, extraordinary advantages, incomparable, racing to lead the world to disaster, and the world is hoping that maybe China can somehow save us. Can you think of an event like that in history? Not a word about it. That’s the astonishing fact of November 8th.
Let’s move forward to March 1st. We’ll talk about both the world and the United States. In the world as study was released showing that tens of thousands of miles of permafrost in northwest Canada are rapidly melting, along with accelerating decline of permafrost in Alaska, Siberia, and Scandinavia, and it pointed out that this could lead to massive release of greenhouse gases – CO2 and methane – which is accelerated by the unprecedented Artic heat wave, which gets radically worse every year. That’s the world.
In the United States, the Trump administration, on March 1st, decided to help the process along by rescinding the so-called methane rule, which limits the release of methane from oil and gas drilling sites on federal land. That’s a way of accelerating the oil boom and increasing the flow of methane into the atmosphere – methane is far more dangerous than CO2, even though its short-lived. There was also on March 1st announcements of sharp cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency staff and programs, and also an edict banning research – we don’t want to learn about these things.
Let’s turn to March 16th. The world. A new study was released on the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s greatest living structures, damage that is intensifying. And the report said that is by far the most the most widespread and damaging of recent mass bleachings of coral reefs since 1998, with wide-ranging disastrous effects. That was the world.
In the United States on March 16th, the Trump budget was released. The Environmental Protection Agency is virtually dismantled. Its now pretty much run by Senator Inhofe and his associates. Inhofe for years has been the leading climate change denier in the Senate. He is an extreme fundamentalist – his position is that, if God is warming the earth, so be it, it would sacrilegious to interfere with God’s will. Now that’s the view in the most powerful, advanced, sophisticated country in the world. And that’s the least of it.
For action and research on climate, the EPA is actually a small actor. Far more important is the Department of Energy, [which is] now in the hands of a guy who decided to get rid of it a couple of years ago, before he learned that it controls nuclear weapons, so we better keep it – but not entirely. The Office of Science, according to the budget (in the Department of Energy) is scheduled to lose $900 million, nearly 20 percent of its budget. It’s $300 million ARPA energy program is eliminated completely, along with the deep cuts in the research programs at the EPA and the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and also a 5 percent cut to NASA’s earth/science budget.
[This] budget, generally, is of unusual savagery, even for the Paul Ryan wing of the Republican establishment, which is effectively running the show now behind the Trump/Spicer/Twitter façade that’s designed to grab the headlines every day. The budget if you look at it is a viscous attack on the working class and the poor. It lavishes even more gifts on the wealthy and the corporate sector, along with a process that you can only describe as the Talibanization of America in accordance with the Bannon/Sessions/DeVos ideal of a society which they’ve described based on Judeo/Christian tradition, white supremacy, [and the] destruction of the humanities, the arts and public schooling – and, on the side, medical research. That’s the goal to which we’re aiming at home, while we race towards destruction internationally.
Practically every issue of science journals provides more grim forecasts. Those of you who read the science journals regularly are familiar with this. So, one recent paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by James Hanson and eighteen other scientists carries out a comparison between today’s climate and the climate of 120,000 years ago, which had approximately the same temperatures as that of today. That led, 120,000 years ago, to a sea-level rise of 20 to 30 feet when much of the polar ice disintegrated. The paper predicts, in the near future, killer storms stronger than any in modern times, disintegration of large parts of the polar ice sheet, leading to melting of huge glaciers – that’s taking place rapidly, especially in the Antarctic – and they predict a rise of seas sufficient to begin drowning the world’s coastal cities before the end of the century. Hanson says, “We’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of their control, with precipitous rises in sea level and other dire consequences.” There are other studies that indicate that climate change is occurring faster than at any time over the last hundred million years – by estimates, far faster. Last year, as you probably know, atmospheric CO2 passed the symbolic level of 400 particles per million, a crucial danger point – that’s the first time in four million years, and possibly irreversible. That’s only a small sample of many such reports…
Meanwhile the Republican wrecking-machine is systematically dismantling the institutions that offer some hope for decent survival. And its not just Trump; its the whole Republican Party leadership, at the national level and at much of the local level. In North Carolina, for example, a couple of years ago, there was a scientific study commissioned by the Coastal Resources Commission, and it estimated that the sea level will rise by 39 inches by the end of the century. There was a response by the Republican-run State legislature: they passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level – a rational reaction [!!!]. There was a pretty good comment on it by Stephen Colbert. He said, “This is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law that says the result is illegal. Problem solved.” That captures quite well the mentality of the Republican Party leadership. A few years ago, Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor who succeeded in sinking Louisiana even deeper into the abyss, warned Republicans that they’re becoming what he called “the stupid party.” The respected conservative political analyst Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute described the party as “a radical insurgency that has abandoned parliamentary democracy.” Perhaps a simpler characterization is the utterly outrageous charge that they are the most dangerous organization in human history, dedicated to ending the prospects for human survival. That is outrageous, no doubt, but the more interesting question is whether its wrong.
I’ve already mentioned Paris 2015, COP 21, and Marrakesh 2016 – those are two crucial examples. The 2016 primary campaign was quite remarkable in many respects, primarily those that weren’t discussed, namely the attitude of the candidates to climate change, which barely got a word of commentary. Every single denied that what is happening, is happening, with the exception of the sensible moderates, like Jeb Bush, who said its uncertain, but we don’t have to do anything because we’re producing more natural gas thanks to fracking; or John Kaisich who was supposed to be the adult in the room, who did at least agree that global warming is probably happening, but he said “We’re going to burn coal in Ohio, and we’re not going to apologize for it.” That’s the sensible guy.
As far as the media, they ignored it, there was almost nothing mentioned. After all, its only the most important issue in human history. And you can’t really blame the media for this because they’re following the concept of objectivity that’s taught in journalism schools. Objectivity means reporting accurately what’s going on within the Beltway, in Washington circles – so you’ve got to report accurately about what they’re saying there. If you talk about something else, its bias, opinion, not genuine reporting. And since what’s going on within the Beltway – including the Democrats, incidentally – is denial, you don’t report it, its not objective.
Even a sea level rise that’s much more limited than what is [actually] anticipated is going to inundate coastal cities and, more significantly, coastal plains, like in Bangladesh, were there will soon be tens of millions of people fleeing probably in the near future. These are flat plains that are going to be inundated, and many more later. That’s going to make today’s refugee issue a tea party. The chief environmental scientist in Bangladesh says that “these migrants should have the right to move to countries from which all these green house gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States.” That just fits the current mood in what has long been the richest and safest country in the world, and also the most terrified.
And those who think its better in Europe can turn to a recent poll showing that a majority of Europeans want a total ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries. So, the idea is first we destroy them, then we punish them for trying to escape from the ruins that we’ve created. We have a name for it, we call it a refugee crisis. Thousands of desperate people drown in the Mediterranean fleeing from Africa, where Europe has a certain history. The same is true of the United States and Central America (and the Middle East). In fact, the so-called refugee crisis is actually a serious, severe, moral and cultural crisis for the West.
Well, these two existential crises are related. The Himalayan glaciers are melting, and in the not-to-distant-future that could threaten the water supplies in South Asia, which are already at dangerously low levels. Three hundred million people in India are reported to lack adequate drinking water right now. That could very easily spark conflict between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states constantly at the brink nuclear war. Right now, in fact, a nuclear war would destroy India and Pakistan, but much worse than that, could very well lead to nuclear winter, meaning global famine, which pretty much ends organized human life on earth.
That leads us to one final date to look at, one of the most important dates of human history, namely the end of World War II. It was a moment of joy, but also a moment of horror, with the dawn of the nuclear age. I can remember very well my own feelings on August 6th – horror at the events and their implications and import, and astonishment that so few people seemed to care about it. Either about the enormity of what had just happened, or about the fact that we had entered into what may well be the final era of human existence – the nuclear age, the moment when human intelligence had succeeded in developing the means to instantaneously destroy us all.
In 1947, shortly after, the Doomsday Clock was instituted, and the hand was set then at seven minutes to midnight. We’re now at two and a half. We have not only entered the nuclear age, but also the so-called Anthropocene, a new geological epoch, in which human activity is dramatically changing the environment. There have been debates about the proper date for the inception of the Anthropocene, but the World Geological Society had made its decision. It settled on 1950 as the beginning of the Anthropocene; that’s partly because of radioactive elements that were dispersed across the planet by the nuclear bomb tests and other consequences of human action, including the sharp increase in greenhouse emissions. So, the nuclear age and the Anthropocene basically coincide. These are epochs of the post-World War period.
We are also well into what’s called the Sixth Extinction. Its expected to be similar to the Fifth Extinction, that was 66 million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and destroyed seventy-give percent of species, ended the age of the dinosaurs. It opened the way for small mammals to thrive and to expand and evolve, and ultimately become us about two hundred thousand years ago. For a long time, humans had fairly limited impact but by now, in the post-war period, we’ve succeeded in becoming the next asteroid, destroying species at an enormous rate, and perhaps ourselves in the not too far [distant time]. There are careful studies of species extinctions, and they have some interesting results; they show that this extinction is different from its predecessors in an interesting respect. The earlier ones were “species neutral” – species just disappeared across the board. This one is different, its mostly larger animals that are disappearing disproportionally. And that actually runs through the history of proto-humans, our early human ancestors, back around a million years – as they expanded their territory, the large mammals declined. And of the many species closely related to us, only one survives, which raises some questions you might ponder.
And that includes the lingering question by Ernst Meyers, “Is it better to be smart than stupid?” We have a few years to answer this question, not many. So how are we answering it? Well one step was George W. Bush’s abrogation of the ABM Treaty, followed under Obama by ABM installations right near the Russian border, allegedly for defense against non-existent Iranian nuclear missiles. … [Russia] has good reason to regard it as a first-strike weapon, as strategic analysts understand missile defense to be, on all sides. The next step was offering NATO membership to Ukraine. Ukraine is the Russian geo-strategic heartland – that was George Bush, but the efforts have been pursued by Obama and [Hillary] Clinton. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would at least end nuclear tests, which would be a considerable step forward, but it can’t go into force until its ratified by the few holdouts – three are crucial, the nuclear weapons states that refuse to ratify it: China, Israel, and the United States. The major nuclear powers, the U.S. and Russia, which have an overwhelming preponderance of nuclear weapons, are both expanding and modernizing their arsenals, in quite dangerous ways. That includes tactical nukes that can be scaled down to battlefield use under low-level command that could easily lead to very rapid escalation… Any conflict between Russia and the United States is essentially terminal for everyone, that’s pretty obvious.
The flash points are becoming more serious. Right at the Russian border – notice, the Russian boarder, not the Mexican border, a fact worth considering. It’s a result of the expansion of NATO right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in violation of verbal promises to Mikhail Gorbachev, verbal promises that NATO would not expand, and the phrase was: “Not one inch to the east,” that meant East Germany. NATO would not expand one inch to the east if Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany, and a unified Germany joining NATO, a hostile military alliance. It was a pretty remarkable concession in the light of the history of the past half-century, that when Germany alone had practically wiped Russia out two times. That was the agreement, but verbal. NATO at once expanded to East Germany, then beyond under Clinton right to the Russian border. There’s recent archival work by a University of Texas historian Joshua Shifrinson, published in the MIT Journal, International Security, that very strongly suggests that President Bush (number one, the statesman Bush) and Secretary of State James Baker were consciously deceiving Gorbachev, pretending to make an agreement which they intended to violate – and were very careful not to put anything on paper, so when Gorbachev complained he was told it was just a gentlemen’s agreement. The unstated implication was, if you’re stupid enough to believe in a gentlemen’s agreement with us, its your problem not ours.
Gorbachev did propose a vision of what he called “a common European home” – Brussels to Vladivostok – a security system with no military alliances. That’s a faded dream. George Kennan, and other senior statesmen, had warned right away that NATO expansion was, what they called, “a tragic mistake,” a “policy error of historic proportions”…and its now leading to rising and serious tensions on the traditional invasion route through which Russia was virtually destroyed twice during the past century by Germany alone. The risk of terminal nuclear war is not slight, and that’s one of the two reasons why the hand of the Doomsday Clock is moving so close to midnight.
With some justice, European historian Richard Sakwa writes that “NATO’s prime concern now is to manage the risks created by its existence,” which is quite accurate. and it bears on Ernst Meyer’s conclusions. That’s how we’re dealing with one of the two crises. How about global warming? Well, we’re answering Meyer’s question by unilateral withdrawal from the world’s efforts to address the crisis. And not just withdrawal, but replacing their efforts with a dedicated race to the precipice, even more rapidly by sharp increases in fossil fuel use (that includes coal), and refusing the promised subsidies to poorer countries to develop renewable energy, and dismantling the regulatory apparatus so that profits can boom along with threats to survival.
And we can’t stress too strongly the enormity of the fact that the United States is alone in the world in this respect, since November 8th, and the no less astonishing fact that this extraordinary development barely registers in the so-called information system. It should have regular screaming headlines, and be the most prominent issue in the academic and intellectual world, which is more evidence about the great derangement.
And no less astonishing is the fact that while the richest and most powerful county in world history, with incomparable advantages, is leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster. While that’s happening, efforts to avert the catastrophe are being led world-wide by what we call “primitive societies” – the first nations in Canada, the tribal and aboriginal societies elsewhere. For example, Ecuador, which has a large indigenous population, sought aid from rich European countries to allow it to keep its oil reserves underground, where they ought to be, even at a cost of considerable profit. The aid was refused. Ecuador revised its constitution in 2008 to include what it called the ‘rights of nature,’ having intrinsic worth. The same in Bolivia, with an indigenous majority. And quite generally, the countries with large and influential populations are well in the lead in seeking to preserve the planet, while the countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction – or extreme marginalization – are racing towards destruction, which is perhaps something more to think about.
Well, outside of the world centre of devastation and destruction, which is right here, some things are being done – not enough, by any means, but not negligible – and an indication of what can be done. Denmark is aiming to reach 100 percent renewable electricity within twenty years, and in all sectors by 2050. Germany, which is the most successful state capitalist economy, has tripled renewable energy for electricity in the past decade [and] aims to increase it by almost half by 2025, and by more than eighty percent by 2050, and by then have reduced green house gas emissions by eighty to ninety percent of 1990 levels. China, which is still a huge polluter, is well in the lead of production of solar panels, and also in the development of advanced solar technology – and it claims to be phasing out coal plants.
In the United States, Hawaii passed a law mandating that all the state’s electricity will come from renewable sources no later than 2045. And right here, several Massachusetts democrats have filed a bill…which requires that the state use a hundred percent renewable energy by 2035, and mandates elimination of all fossil fuels in the state by 2050. San Diego is the first large city to plan to run a hundred percent renewable energy, and cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, by 2035; and that’s, incidentally, a bi-partisan effort – the Republican mayor endorsed the climate action plan that was unanimously approved by the Democrat-controlled city council.
In a period in which the federal government is in the hands of bulls in the china shop, states and cities still can do quite a lot. And the federal government could also do so, in the right hands. One of Hillary Clinton’s programs was to shift all households to total renewable energy in four years – quite feasible. It would create many jobs, along with weatherization and other forms of conservation. And federal regulations in recent years have had some positive effects, unfortunately counterbalanced by support for greater fossil fuel production. There is a final assessment by the Obama administration, published in the journal, Science. It reports that in 2015, total energy consumption was 2.5 percent lower than it was in 2008, while the economy grew by ten percent. Now, the reduction is by no means enough, but it does remind us that growth itself is not a menace to the environment – depends on what kind of growth. So, for example, development of a rational mass transportation system, or development of renewable energy, or growth in education and R & D, all can improve prospects for addressing the crisis while also significantly improving lives. The Obama assessment reports that about 2.2 million Americans are employed in the design, installation and manufacture of energy efficient products and services, as compared with half that number employed in the production of fossil fuels, and their use for electric power generation. And the current oil boom, which I mentioned earlier, creates almost no jobs, because its almost all automated.
Well, again, its no where near enough, but not insignificant and, more important, an indication of what can be done. And there’s good reason to think it can. Harvey Michaels is research director of energy management here at the Sloan School, and he’s shown persuasively how ambitious but feasible measures beyond those now contemplated internationally – that’s internationally apart from the Republican U.S. – such measures could meet the goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees centigrade (that’s considered the major danger point). Ernie Moniz, now back at MIT, has produced figures about declining costs for clean energy technologies that lead him to conclude that “climate change may have inspired the energy revolution, but price makes it inevitable – maybe even in time, with enough effort.”
Replacing fossil fuels by renewable energy is the major issue, but its not the only one. The UN economic program, summarizing recent scientific studies, estimates that industrial meat production contributes 10 to 25 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, not so much CO2 as methane and nitrous oxide, both greenhouse gases. The variation in the estimates depends on whether the figures take into account deforestation and other land use changes associated with livestock – and livestock is about 80 percent of agricultural emissions. This is mostly industrial meat production, which is quite vicious, as you know – its designed to maximize profit with animals treated as efficient production elements; awful affects on animals, but also a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Actually, pre-capitalist animal agriculture didn’t have those problems; a quote from the UN report: “Under natural conditions, which were maintained for thousands of years, and still widely exist around the world, there’s a closed circular system in which some animals feed themselves from landscape types which would otherwise be of little use to humans. They thus convert energy stored in plants into food, while at the same time fertilizing the ground with their excrements. Although not an intensive form of production, this coexistence and use of marginal resources was, and still is in some regions, an efficient symbiosis between plant life, animal life, and human needs.” But capitalist industrial production aimed at profit maximization has changed all that.
Well, I mentioned that with the federal government now turned into a wrecking-machine, states and cities can do quite a lot, and the same is true for every one of us. There are major issues of education and organizing that have to be faced. And again, some of these are unique to the United States and the developed world. One of these is the extraordinary power in the United States of fundamentalist religious doctrines – about 40 percent of the population dismiss the threat of global warming on religious grounds; they regard it as either certain or highly probable that within a few decades the Second Coming will put an end to the problem. Its important to remember in this connection that the United States is kind of a cultural outlier. Prior to the Second World War, the United States was by far the most powerful economy, but it was not a major center of scientific or general culture – if you wanted to be a physicist you went to Germany, if you wanted to be a writer you went to Paris, and so on… It took a while for this to be phased out…but by the 1950s it was an anachronism. The changes are very real, but they’ve affected only part of the country. Much of the population is still pretty much where it was pre-World War II, and that’s a major task for the educational system, and the prospects right now don’t look good – not with the DeVos, Sessions, Bannon conception of education. The Trump Administration has to do something for its huge evangelical popular base, and that involves driving the United States even farther off the spectrum of the modern world with the Talibanization project that’s now underway.
Well, there are major challenges, no doubt. There are also quite a few rays of hope. I mentioned some of the measures that are being taken by state and local governments – and national governments around the world – to address the crises. Not enough, but not negligible, but an indication of what’s possible. And there are other reasons for optimism. One of them has just been reported by, of all places, Fox News. They ran a poll on popularity of political figures, and in first place by a huge margin was Bernie Sanders – even more among the young, who are the hope of the future. There are ample opportunities, but you have to grasp them.
And all of this takes us back to Ernst Meyers question, “Is it better to smart than stupid?” That’s a question for you to ponder and, like it or not, for you to answer, and without too much of a delay.
Written and presented by Professor Noam Chomsky, MIT, April 2017
The Most Dangerous Country in the World
Nuclear proliferation and climate change are subjects of acute concern in the current moment, driven into an all-out state of emergency by the new Trump administration. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky discusses the media coverage of these two major issues, highlighting U.S. tensions with Russia, Iran & North Korea, as well as discussing the recent U.S. airstrike on Syria's Air Force base.
An interview with Noam Chomsky in Trouthout...
Daniel Falcone: What do you make of the distressing lack of discussion on climate change and nuclear proliferation in the mainstream media?
Noam Chomsky: If you want to learn something about nuclear weapons and why these issues are not being reported, take a look at the March 1 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where there is an absolutely spectacular article by two real experts -- Hans M. Kristensen and Ted Postol from MIT. They discuss the new targeting systems that have been invented under the Obama Modernization Program that's now being escalated by Trump, and it's extremely dangerous. What they claim based on disclosed information is that the U.S. missile systems have been improved by such a huge factor that they are now capable of instantly wiping out the Russian deterrent.
This is massive overkill and nuclear stability is gone, and of course, the Russians know this. What that implies is that if they ever feel a threat, they're just going to be compelled to launch a preemptive strike because otherwise they're dead, you know? And that means we're all dead. This is the most important news that's come out in I don't know how long.
Falcone: The New York Times and other mainstream outlets followed through on their conventional habits of praising the U.S. and Trump's latest strike of Syria but went on to lament that his foreign policy doctrine is improvisational. And, in some ways, based on the Cabinet appointments, it reminds me of Bush 43, where they select defenseless targets. Meanwhile they claim they're trying to fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but it seems like they're just enhancing it.
Chomsky: They certainly are not fighting nuclear proliferation. Well, if they want to fight nuclear proliferation, there are things they can do. Iran, which was never really an issue, could have been settled years ago. There's an interesting book by the former Brazilian ambassador Celso Amorim. In 2010, he initiated an effort along with Turkey to settle the whole Iran issue. Nobody outside of the United States takes it to be much of an issue. Here, it's the worst threat in human history, but they made a deal with Iran for Iran to essentially give away its low enriched uranium to Turkey for storage, and in return, the Western powers (meaning the U.S.) would provide them with ice tubs for their medical reactors. That basically would have ended it. It was immediately scratched by Obama and Clinton. And the main reason was they didn't want anybody else to be involved in it. We were supposed to run things, but we didn't say that. The ostensible reason was that Clinton was just on the verge of pressing for additional sanctions against Iran at the Security Council and didn't want it undermined, so that shows the attitude toward proliferation. And the same is happening with North Korea. [Recently] they announced more offensive actions against North Korea.
Naval missiles are going to raise the level of [danger], [but] is there a diplomatic option? Yes, there is. North Korea and China have proposed what sounds like a pretty sensible option that North Korea should end its development of nuclear weapons -- just no more, just keep it the way it is -- and in return, the U.S. should stop carrying out hostile military maneuvers on the North Korean border -- nuclear capable B-52s and so on. The U.S. immediately rejected it. And the press and everyone else said [little]….
This modernization program is a very clear example of how security doesn't matter. There is no gain in security but massive overkill of the adversary's deterrent capacity. The only consequence of it is to elicit the likelihood of a preemptive attack. And a preemptive attack leads to a nuclear winter world.
Falcone: Not to mention we have a presence there militarily. I remember once you said something about how the deterrent wasn't nuclear weapons, it was North Korean militarization pointed toward Seoul and the U.S. military.
Chomsky: If the U.S. were to attack North Korea, they'd certainly destroy North Korea, but South Korea would be pretty well wiped out too. They have amassed artillery aimed at Seoul that nobody can do anything about.
Falcone: In regards to U.S. relations to Syria, are there political solutions? Last time Medea Benjamin was on "Democracy Now!" she was saying how there are political options for the U.S. and Syria and they're never tried.
Chomsky: There were some suggestions in 2012. The Russian ambassador at the United Nations did make some proposals for a political settlement in which Assad would be slowly eased out. The West dismissed it immediately, and we don't know if it was real, because it didn't come from the Kremlin, and it was informal. But the point is every such proposal is immediately scotched. And you just don't know if they're real.
It's kind of like 9/11. The Taliban, after all, did indicate that they might extradite Osama bin Laden, but the U.S. wouldn't hear of it. You've got to use force. Well, one of the reasons, the Taliban did ask for evidence and one of the problems was they didn't have any evidence.
Falcone: How do climate change and climate science intersect with the issue of nuclear weapons and those capabilities? It seems like a chance to talk about both.
Chomsky: One of the few institutions that's worried about climate change is the Pentagon, because they're going to be in trouble, like the Navy -- the Norfolk Naval Base will be inundated when the sea level rises, and they're worried about the fact that just plain sea level rise and other dangerous weather systems are going to cause huge floods of refugees.
Just take a look at Bangladesh. It's a coastal plain -- a couple hundred million people. What are they going to do if this gets worse -- what's going to happen then, you know?
Falcone: With the emergence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it looks like business as usual with the cabinet members and their institutional roles. Is this cabinet in particular especially dangerous to the planet?
Chomsky: It's incredible what's happening, and what's more astounding still is that there's no comment. By now - since November 8 - the United States is literally alone in the world in first of all refusing to join in efforts to do something about it - but even worse, dedicated to making the situation worse. Every part of [the world] is trying to do something. The United States alone is trying to destroy it, and it's not just Trump, it's the whole Republican Party. You just can't find words for it. And it's not reported. It's not discussed.
The U.S. is the wrecking machine that is destroying everything. The world is hoping that China will somehow come to the rescue. I mean the most important event on November 8 - which I've talked about a couple times, but nobody will listen - is that as you may know, at that time, there was an international conference going on in Morocco that was a follow up for the Paris conference - to put some teeth in the Paris agreements. But on November 8, the conferences stopped. The question was, Will we survive? Not a word about it. Even more amazing, the world is looking to China to save them. The U.S. is the wrecking machine that is destroying everything. The world is hoping that China will somehow come to the rescue.
Falcone: What does that mean about our establishment - that we look to China?
Chomsky: What it means is the United States is absolutely the most dangerous country in the world.
Falcone: It doesn't say a good thing about democracy or a hope for it.
Chomsky: It doesn't have much to do with democracy, because a democracy barely functions under the neoliberal system. But most of the population is disenfranchised. It doesn't matter what they think. Just look at the passionate rhetoric about how we can't stand by when a country uses weapons to kill innocent civilians. Right now, the United States is supporting Saudi Arabian military attacks and a famine policy - a starvation policy - overt policy of starvation in Yemen that is going to kill tens of thousands of people; it already is, in fact. But is anybody saying anything about it? Gareth Porter writes about [it] and a couple other people.
Falcone: What do you think about the Trump administration in terms of the direction it is going, and what would the foreign policy look like? Is it just unpredictable because he is so unpredictable? Or will it follow a trajectory?
Chomsky: I think the foreign policy is really not their concern. Like the Syria strike. I mean, it meant almost nothing. They hit an empty air base. Within a day, it was functioning again. Planes were flying off it. It was for a domestic show, you know - show what a tough guy I am; I'm not Obama. And then go back to the "normal" - think the real things that are happening are basically the Ryan budget and the Ryan legislative programs.
All of that's going on right under the cover of the Trump/Spicer media extravaganzas. Those guys do one thing after another to keep the media attention focused on them. And it works. Turn on CNN and that's what you hear, and meanwhile, these legislative achievements are being made which are chipping away at anything the government has that's of any use to anybody. Ryan, I think, is the most dangerous guy in the government. He knows what he's doing. And it's very systematic. I presume he's behind the cabinet appointments, but it's pretty amazing that every single cabinet appointment is somebody devoted to destroying that part of government. Or making sure it doesn't work. That's put a lot of focus on the EPA, which is bad enough, but the most significant environmental programs are in the Department of Energy and they fall short because of that.
Falcone: So the cabinet appointments in particular look like people deliberately chosen to undermine the function of the agencies?
Chomsky: Every single one: education, environment, labor - every single one is selected to undermine any aspect of government that's of any help to people, and that doesn't benefit the super-rich. And it's absolutely systematic. The interesting question will be how long Trump's constituency can fall for the con game. I mean, they're being kicked in the face more than anybody else. But they still have faith in their man. If that collapses - which I suppose it will sooner or later - the Trump administration is going to have to turn to something pretty radical to try to maintain control.
Falcone: What do you suppose is Russia's attitude toward the Syrian strike? Do they see it as theater?
Chomsky: Well, there are some interesting questions there - you can understand why Assad would have been pretty crazy [to provoke a U.S. intervention] because they're winning the war. The worst thing for him is to bring the United States in. So why would he turn to a chemical weapons attack? You can imagine that a dictator with just local interests might do it, maybe if he thought he had a green light. But why would the Russians allow it? It doesn't make any sense. And in fact, there are some questions about what happened, but there are some pretty credible people -- not conspiracy types -- people with solid intelligence credentials that say it didn't happen. Lawrence Wilkerson said that the U.S. intelligence picked up a plane and followed that it probably hit an Al-Qaeda warehouse which had some sort of chemical weapon stored in it and they spread. I don't know. But it certainly calls for at least an investigation. And those are not insignificant people [coming to this conclusion].
Falcone: Could you talk about how the left is divided on the Syrian question?
Chomsky: The left is awful on this. For one thing, a large part of the left is pro-Assad. [In those circles], you can't criticize Assad, but you know he's a monstrous war criminal. And anyone who criticizes Assad is joining the U.S. imperialists. That's just ludicrous. I mean, whatever you think about this event, Assad is certainly responsible for the overwhelming mass of the atrocities. And it's a horror story. So that's part of the left. In fact, that's about the only visible part of the left.
There are others who say we just shouldn't get involved in another war, certainly. I mean, if in fact, the U.S. story is correct, if it is true that Syria used chemical weapons, then it wouldn't be a major crime to send a kind of shot across the bow saying you can't do this anymore. Not the best thing in the world, but not a major crime, either. So, I think at the very least there should have been an inquiry into what happened. But just joining the bandwagon about how we're finally standing up to crimes in Syria, that's ridiculous.
Falcone: I don't agree with U.S. intervention in Syria, but I also oppose Assad. How can one be opposed to Assad and be wary of U.S. intervention at the same time?
Chomsky: There are people on the left who say, Look, we can't let these atrocities go on, so let's enter the war and get rid of Assad. The problem with that is you get into a nuclear war with Russia. And Syria gets wiped out along with everything else. So, it's fine to say, OK, let's stop the crimes, but how exactly?
Noam Chomsky Interview, First Posted in Truthout, April 24, 2017.
Chomsky's Riverside Lecture
"Climate change and nuclear war are the most dangerous threats to the human species." Noam Chomsky
As part of its twenty year celebrations, Democracy Now! broadcast a lecture from Riverside Church in New York by Noam Chomsky on the intersecting threats of climate change and nuclear war. Our transcript appears below.
A lecture by Noam Chomsky...
The Paris Conference had the goal of establishing verifiable commitments to do something about the worst problem that humans have ever faced – the likely destruction of the possibility for organized human life. They couldn’t do that. They could only reach a non-verifiable commitment – promises – but not fixed by treaty and a real commitment. And the reason was that the Republican Congress in the United States would not accept binding commitments, so they were left with something much weaker.
The Morocco Conference intended to carry this forward, by putting teeth in that loose, vague agreement. The conference opened on November 7. On November 8, the World Meteorological Organization presented an assessment of the current state of what’s called the anthropocene – the new geological epoch – that is marked by radical human modification and destruction of the environment that sustains life. November 9, the conference basically ceased. The question that was left was whether it would be possible to carry forward this global effort to deal with the highly critical problem of environmental catastrophe if the leader of the free world, the richest and most powerful country, would pull out completely, as appeared to be the case. That’s the stated goal of the president-elect, who regards climate change as a hoax, and whose policy, if he pursues it, is to maximize the use of fossil fuels, end environmental regulations, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (established by Richard Nixon, which is a measure of where politics has shifted to the right in the past generation), and in other ways to accelerate the race to destruction. That was essentially the end of the Marrakesh Conference, it terminated without any issue, so that might signal the end of the world even if not quite in the intended sense.
And in fact, what happened in Marrakesh was quite an astounding spectacle – the hope of the world for saving us from this impending disaster was China. Authoritarian, harsh, China. That’s where hopes were placed. At the same time, the leader of the free world, the richest, most powerful country in history, was acting in such a way as to doom the hopes to total disaster. An astonishing spectacle, and its no less astounding that it received almost no comment.
The effects are quite real. COP 21, the Paris negotiations, could not reach a verifiable treaty because of the refusal of the Republican Congress to accept binding commitments. The following conference, COP 22, ended without [resolution]. We will soon see, in the not too distant future, even more dangerous, horrifying consequences of this failure right here, to come to terms and address in a serious way this impending crisis.
Take the country of Bangladesh. Within a few years, tens of millions of people will be fleeing from the low lying coastal plain simply because of the rise of sea levels, with the melting the huge Antarctic [ice shelf] much more quickly than was anticipated, and the severe weather associated with global warming. That’s a refugee crisis of a kind that puts today’s crisis – which is more a moral crisis of the West than an actual refugee crisis – as more a footnote to a tragedy. The leading climate scientist in Bangladesh has reacted by saying: “These migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States.” And indeed the other countries that have grown wealthy, as we all have, while bringing on this new geologic epoch, which may well be the final one for the species.
And the catastrophic consequences can only increase. Keeping to South Asia, temperatures, which are already intolerable for the poor, are going to continue to rise as the Himalayan glaciers melt, also destroying the water supply for south Asia. In India already, 300 million people are reported to lack water to drink, and it will continue, for both India and Pakistan. And it is at this point that the two major threats to survival begin to converge. One is environmental catastrophe and the other is nuclear war, another threat that is increasing right before our eyes. India and Pakistan are nuclear states. They are already almost at war. Any kind of real war would immediately turn into a nuclear war, and that might very easily erupt over struggles over diminishing water supplies. A nuclear war would not only devastate the region, but might actually be terminal for the species, if, indeed, it leads to nuclear winter and global famine, as many scientists predict. So, the threats to survival converge right there and we’re going to see much more like it.
Meanwhile, the United States is leading the way to disaster, while the world looks to China for leadership. Its an incredible, astounding picture and, indeed, only one piece of a much larger picture. The U.S. isolation at Marrakesh is symptomatic of broader developments that we should think about pretty carefully. They’re of considerable significance. U.S. isolation in the world is increasing in remarkable ways, maybe the most striking is right in this hemisphere. What used to be called "our little region over here" - Henry Stimson, secretary of war under Roosevelt, "our little region over here," where nobody bothers us. If anybody gets out of line, we punish them harshly; otherwise, they do what we say. That’s very far from true. During this century, Latin America, for the first time in 500 years, has freed itself from Western imperialism - that’s the United States. The International Monetary Fund, which is basically an agency of the U.S. Treasury, has been kicked out of South America entirely. There are no U.S. military bases left. The international organizations, the - the hemispheric organizations are beginning to exclude the United States and Canada. In 2015, there was a summit coming up, and the United States might have been excluded completely from the hemisphere over the issue of Cuba. That was the crucial issue that the hemisphere - on which the hemisphere opposed U.S. policy, as does the world. That’s surely the reason why Obama made the gestures towards normalization, that were at least some step forward - and could be reversed under Trump. We don’t know.
On a much more far-reaching scale, something similar is happening in Asia. As you know, one of Obama’s major policies was the so-called pivot to Asia, which was actually a measure to confront China, transparently. One component of the pivot to Asia was the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excluded China, tried to bring in other Asia-Pacific countries. Well, that seems to be on its way to collapse, for pretty good reasons, I think. But at the same time, there’s another international trade agreement that is expanding and growing, namely, China’s, what they call the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is now drawing in U.S. allies, from Peru to Australia to Japan. The U.S. will probably choose to stay out of it, just as the United States, virtually alone, has stayed away from China’s Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, a kind of counterpart to the World Bank, that the U.S. has opposed for many years, but has now been joined by practically all U.S. allies, Britain and others. At the same time, China is expanding to the West with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-based Silk Roads. The whole system is an integrated system of energy resource sharing and so on. It includes Siberia, with its rich resources. It includes India and Pakistan. Iran will soon join, it appears, and probably Turkey. This will extend all the way from China to Europe. The United States has asked for observer status, and it’s been rejected, not permitted. And one of the major commitments of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the whole of the Central Asian states, is that there can be no U.S. military bases in this entire region.
Another step toward isolation may soon take place if the president-elect carries through his promise to terminate the nuclear weapons - the nuclear deal with Iran. Other countries who are parties to the deal might well continue - Europe, mainly. That means ignoring U.S. sanctions. That will extend U.S. isolation, even from Europe. And in fact Europe might move, under these circumstances, towards backing off from the confrontation with Russia. Actually, Brexit may assist with this, because Britain was the voice of the United States in NATO, the harshest voice. Now it’s out, giving Europe some opportunities. There were choices in 1990, ’91, time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev had what he called a vision of a common European home, an integrated, cooperative system of security, commerce, interchange, no military alliances from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The U.S. insisted on a different vision - namely, Soviet Union collapses, and NATO remains and, indeed, expands, right up to the borders of Russia now, where very serious threats are evident daily.
Well, all of this, these are significant developments. They’re related to the widely discussed matter of decline of American power. There are some conventional measures which, however, are misleading in quite interesting ways. I’ll just say a word about it, because there’s no time, but it’s something to seriously think about. By conventional measures, in 1945, the United States had reached the peak of global dominance - nothing like it in history. It had perhaps 50 percent of total world’s wealth. Other industrial countries were devastated or destroyed by the war, severely damaged. The U.S. economy had gained enormously from the war, and it was in, the U.S. in general, had a position of dominance with no historical parallel. Well, that, of course, couldn’t last. Other industrial countries reconstructed. By around 1970, the world was described as tripolar: three major economic enters - a German-based Europe, a U.S.-based North America and the Northeast Asian area, at that time Japan-based, now China had moved in as a partner, conflict then partner. By now - by that time, U.S. share in global wealth was about 25 percent. And today it’s not far below that.
Well, all of this is highly misleading, because it fails to take into account a crucial factor, which is almost never discussed, though there’s some interesting work on it. That’s the question of ownership of the world economy. If you take a look at the corporate - the multinational corporations around the world - what do they own? Well, that turns out to be a pretty interesting matter. In virtually every - this increasingly during the period of neoliberal globalization of the last generation, corporate wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth. Corporate wealth, of course, is nationally based, supported by taxpayers like us, but the ownership has nothing to do with us. Corporate ownership, if you look at that, it turns out that in virtually every economic sector - manufacturing, finance, services, retail and others - U.S. corporations are well in the lead in ownership of the global economy. And overall, their ownership is close to 50 percent of the total. That’s roughly the proportion of U.S. national wealth in 1945, which tells you something about the nature of the world in which we live. Of course, that’s not for the benefit of American citizens, but of those who own and manage these private - publicly supported and private, quasi-totalitarian systems. If you look at the military dimension, of course, the U.S. is supreme. Nobody is even close. No point talking about it. But it is possible that Europe might take a more independent role. It might move towards something like Gorbachev’s vision. That might lead to a relaxation of the rising and very dangerous tensions at the Russian border, which would be a very welcome development. Well, there’s a lot more to say about the fears and hopes and prospects. The threats and dangers are very real. There are plenty of opportunities. And as we face them, again, particularly the younger people among you, we should never overlook the fact that the threats that we now face are the most severe that have ever arisen in human history. They are literal threats to survival: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe. These are very urgent concerns. They cannot be delayed. They became more urgent on November 8th, for the reasons you know and that I mentioned. They have to be faced directly, and soon, if the human experiment is not to prove to be a disastrous failure.
Noam Chomsky Lecture at Riverside Church, Presented by Democracy Now! on December 6, 2016