The cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that civilization is at a critical juncture in its short—on geological timescales—career. We live in the “most dangerous time for our planet” due to climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and emerging technologies—and if we fail to proceed with great caution and wisdom, our species could follow the dodo into an existential oblivion.
To alert the public of the greatest dangers facing humanity, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock in 1947. Its time represents our collective proximity to a global catastrophe. The closest the clock has ever been to midnight—or doom—was in 1953, after the US and Soviet Union detonated thermonuclear weapons. The furthest away it’s been happened in 1991, when the clock stood at a somewhat reassuring 17 minutes before midnight, following the official end of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, the minute hand has been ominously ticking forward in recent years, and on January 26 the Bulletin announced that it would move the clock forward even more to a mere two and a half minutes before doom. The only time the clock has indicated a higher threat level was in 1953—a fact that should make one uneasy, at the very least, about our collective future on spaceship Earth. While the Bulletin originally considered only the threat of nuclear weapons, it recently added climate change to the list of global, transgenerational risks. Given President Donald Trump’s reckless statements about nuclear proliferation and the Republican’s rampant climate denialism, it should not come as a surprise that “doom-soon” is now more probable than it was a year ago.
To better understand the Bulletin’s decision, I Skyped with Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University who also chairs the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors. He is one of many leading experts—including 15 Nobel laureates—who decide whether the clock should move forward, backwards, or remain frozen. (This interview has been lightly edited with hyperlinks added.)
Mustafa Kibaroglu recently wrote in the Bulletin, “What is overly idealistic is to believe that humanity, if it possesses nuclear weapons indefinitely, will indefinitely manage to avoid nuclear war.” Do you think that nuclear conflict of some sort is more or less inevitable as long as nuclear weapons exist?
I don’t know whether nuclear conflict is inevitable, but I think the use of nuclear weapons is. I think having a nuclear weapon used by accident or on purpose against a civilian population is unavoidable as long as we possess them. Ideally, a world free of nuclear weapons is one that we should aim for.
How might a single nuclear weapon being detonated anywhere change the world?
It would open the floodgates and lower the threshold for using the next one, and the next one. The issue also depends to some extent on where it happens. If a nuclear bomb were detonated in the First World, the tragedy of 9/11 would pale in comparison. The short-term impact on the global economy and the global political situation would dwarf anything that’s happened in recent memory. Would we survive such an attack? Yes. But opening the dam—or better, opening Pandora’s box—would be an extremely dangerous thing to do.
The Iran nuclear deal has been harshly criticized by Republicans. Yet the Bulletin last year identified it as one of two “bright spots in a darker world situation full of potential for catastrophe.” Why do you support this deal, which Trump himself has labeled “the worst … ever negotiated.”
Well, my guess is that he probably hasn’t even read the deal. The point is that Iran had every motivation to develop nuclear weapons and the capability of doing this. What the Iran deal did was remove that capability in a verifiable way. The whole point of non-proliferation efforts is to offer incentives for not creating nuclear weapons, rather than saying, “We don’t want you to have them, even though we do, and are therefore able to control you.” The Iran deal clearly pulled us back from the brink at a time when there was no other solution. I mean, military action would have been a disaster. The nuclear deal was a huge diplomatic win.
Now, can we improve upon it in the long run? Can we try to establish better verification processes down the road? Yes. But this deal was diplomacy at its best. It took us back from the military precipice and it achieved its goal of reducing the nuclear threat from Iran. If you had to pick triumphs, it’s way up there.
When the Bulletin writes that “unless carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically reduced, global warming will threaten the future of humanity,” what does it mean by the “future of humanity”? Are we talking about human extinction, the collapse of global civilization, or the decline of independent societies?
It’s not the same kind of threat as nuclear weapons, which could quickly extinguish humanity—or at least civilization as we know it. However, global warming will create a profound threat to modern civilization, not just locally but globally. For example, if billions of people are displaced from their homes, the result will be immense sociopolitical pressures. If storms regularly produce economic havoc in the First World, this will require a new way of living. And if certain areas of the world become literally uninhabitable, we will have changed the planet in a fundamental way.
These are severe enough, I think, for any one of them to be considered a major challenge to civilization. Could humans go extinct because of global warming? It’s not likely. But the future of human civilization would certainly be jeopardized. Consider that the sea level rise predicted in the near-term is conservative: it could actually be meters. And changing the North Atlantic currents so that Europe becomes colder would have severe and pervasive effects on how people live on that continent. By endangering the future of humanity, the Bulletin means that life will change irrevocably in ways that are highly undesirable. From my point of view, the sociopolitical problems of displacing one-third of the world’s population, which could significantly exacerbate wars and violence, should be taken very seriously. I mean, we only have a few refugees entering the US from a local war in Syria right now and we can barely handle that. Wait until there are 2 billion refugees knocking on the door.
Building on something you just said, do you see climate change as a “conflict multiplier”? To what extent do you worry that it could increase the probability of nuclear conflicts in the future?
I tried to say that at the press conference the other day [held on January 26]. These things are all connected. There are even interrelationships between AI [artificial intelligence], cybertechnology, and nuclear weapons—and when you increase international tensions and countries possess nuclear weapons, you obviously, at some level, increase the likelihood of war as well. Furthermore, when you create a greater disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” you kind of make the latter want to find ways to gain more political power, and acquiring nuclear weapons are one way to do this. Terrorism is bred in part by ideology, but also by economic disparity and lack of hope. So, yes: climate change is a potential conflict multiplier.
If a climate emergency were to occur—for example, resulting in sudden increases in global surface temperature—would you support the use of stratospheric geoengineering? [Note: stratospheric geoengineering is an idea taken seriously by some scientists. It would involve injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect incoming light from the sun, thereby decreasing global surface temperatures.]
No. Not at this point, because the unknowns outweigh the knowns. I think there are other kinds of geoengineering that are much more relevant, and with which I’m involved. Unfortunately, the total amount of research dollars that’s been devoted to exploring carbon capture and sequestration (not at coal plants but generally) is maybe 10 million versus 60 billion a year for coal and gas exploration. We know what will happen if we reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because that’s where we were: the climate will return to a safe equilibrium. But to play games with a complicated system without understanding the implications is to me a great concern.
Why are Trump’s statements about NATO being “obsolete” worrisome? [Note: many scholars see NATO as having played a critical role in keeping the peace in Europe since World War II.]
Trump’s statements about NATO are absurd because they aren’t based on any knowledge. Like monkeys on a typewriter, some of them may eventually be right. But the point is that you have to base such claims on empirical evidence, and you must rely on experts because that’s how you run a responsible government. The statement that NATO is obsolete is just vague and emotional. Whether there could be new allegiances, new strategic frameworks, new cooperations—that’s all possible. But random statements from someone who is obviously ignorant, who hasn’t made any efforts to actually read or learn about the global situation, is worrisome when that person can establish new policies at a whim.
[Although Dr. Krauss adds that he’s fairly convinced that the courts will roll back some of Trump’s executive orders.]
The Bulletin writes, “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.” How should citizens step forward and lead the way?
First of all, they have to become aware of and acknowledge the problems. Then people should phone their congresspeople, participate in public marches, and exercise their power at the voting booth. At this point, we still—I think—live in a democracy, to some extent. Consequently, congresspeople should still react when people say, “This really matters to me.” Unfortunately, in my opinion we’ve become incredibly complaisant when it comes to nuclear weapons. The public would rather not think or worry about them: “they haven’t been used in over 70 years, the reasoning goes, so they won’t be used in the future.”
The only way you’re going to see this [US] Congress ever react to an irrational presidential initiative is if they somehow feel that it’s in their best interest. I know it sounds jaded to say but I’m not convinced that the health and welfare of the nation are their prime concerns right now. Maybe this has always been the case, but the public does have an opportunity to make a difference. Indeed, it’s happened before—for example, with the Vietnam War. You can have an impact. Speak out in your local communities, get people organized, and educate others. It sounds pie in the sky, but it’s the only tool we have right now.
I think most of the public, on many issues, is further away from the brink than governments are, but as long as the public stays quiet, nothing is going to happen.
Steven Pinker and others argue—convincingly, in my view—that the world has never been so peaceful. Yet it seems like the world has also never had so much potential for catastrophe. Are you optimistic about the future?
I try not to be optimistic about the future, in part because I try not to make predictions. As readers might have heard me say, I avoid making predictions about anything less than 2 trillion years in the future. [Laughs.] I’m often guided by a friend of mine, Cormac McCarthy. When I remarked on how pleasant a fellow he was and how that differed from his rather bleak stories, he said: “I’m a pessimist but that’s no reason to be gloomy.” I kind of take that as my mantra. I think there’s great hope and, indeed, opportunities here for both Trump and Putin. I just finished writing a book called The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far. It’s about, in some ways, humanity at its best. When one looks at what humanity can do, one realizes that there’s always hope. We can overcome the darker side of our nature.
So, we’re not necessarily doomed, but it would be foolish and naive to not recognize the challenges and threats that are present. Louis Pasteur said that “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and I think that’s the appropriate way to move forward.
Phil Torres is the founding Director of the X-Risks Institute. He has published in popular media like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, TIME, Skeptic, Free Inquiry, Truthout, and Salon. His forthcoming book is called Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks. Follow him at @xriskology.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
from The Only Way to Prevent Another Nuclear Strike Is to Get Rid of All the Nukes