To Save Humanity: What I Learned at the “Two Minutes to Midnight” Conference

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided earlier this year to adjust the “Doomsday Clock,” the organization’s index of probable nuclear and other dangers facing humanity.[1] Tensions between the United States and nations such as North Korea, Russia, and China, among other factors, prompted the Bulletin to move the Doomsday Clock’s hands to two minutes to midnight—“midnight” representing apocalypse. The current status is the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953, during one of the coldest periods of the Cold War.

 

The Doomsday Clock’s status, and the underlying threat of nuclear war it reflects, provided the title and motivation for the day-long conference “Two Minutes to Midnight: What We Can Do to Prevent Nuclear War,” co-sponsored by the Consistent Life Network. Held at Goucher College in Baltimore on November 17th, the conference had an array of co-sponsors (including Consistent Life member group Rehumanize International). The organizations Prevent Nuclear War-Maryland, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Maryland Peace Action Network, as well as the Peace Studies program at Goucher, played the central role in organizing the event. The conference’s talks and workshop examined the current nuclear danger and various strategies for countering it.

 

I found the event a sobering experience. Conference speakers made clear how dangerous the current world situation is. Many different international flashpoints could ignite a nuclear exchange. Current political trends are towards worsening international relations and fewer controls on nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, peace activists can focus their energies on some specific steps to lessen nuclear weapons’ threat. Speakers and workshop leaders identified several initiatives for activists to pursue.

 

Current Dangers

 

The morning plenary speakers were Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, and Dr. Ira Helfand, the co-chair of the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Their talks provided an overview of how nuclear weapons might be used and what the consequences would be. The most obvious sources of danger are the United States’ hostile relationships with Russia and North Korea.

 

Kimball noted that the United States and Russia are on the verge of a major nuclear arms race. The Trump administration has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which abolished a whole category of nuclear weapons.[2] Although the United States hasn’t yet formally withdrawn from the treaty, Kimball predicted (in a later workshop) that it soon would and that the INF Treaty is now probably unsalvageable. Activists should instead focus on saving the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that limits American and Russian nuclear arsenals. START needs to be renewed by 2021, but Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, may oppose renewal.[3] If START lapses, then American and Russian nuclear weapons will be almost entirely unregulated and an uncontrolled arms race could result. Current US plans to spend upwards of $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next 30 years only add to the risk of an arms race.

 

The situation with North Korea is somewhat better, with fears of nuclear war having slightly lessened following the Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. Kimball commented, though, that progress has stalled as both sides wait for the other to take the next step.

Helfand’s talk identified other, less-publicized threats. US-China relations are now the worst they have been in 40 years, with the two countries sparring over trade and their militaries veering toward confrontation in the South China Sea.

Further, another conflict that doesn’t directly involve the United States threatens nuclear war. India and Pakistan, which have around 300 nuclear weapons between them, have fought four wars with each other and continue to have a very tense relationship.

 

More general dangers, not limited to specific countries, also exist. Global climate change could stir up conflict as people compete for stressed natural resources. Nuclear terrorism is also a possibility—especially the danger of terrorists hacking into nuclear-armed nations’ command and control systems to trigger a nuclear exchange.

Helfand also described a nuclear exchange’s consequences. Despite the vivid testimonies and records from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, he emphasized that these don’t prepare us for the destructive power of contemporary nuclear weapons. Using even a relatively few nuclear weapons—in an India-Pakistan war, say—would cause worldwide climate disruption and a famine affecting 2 billion people.[4] Such a “limited” nuclear war would still mean the end of civilization as we know it. A full-scale nuclear world war would be beyond imagining, with 300-350 million killed in the first day and climate effects causing a new ice age.

That we have avoided such catastrophes for over 70 years is largely a matter of luck—hardly a reliable basis of humanity’s long-term survival. (The same day as the conference, Dr. Helfand published an op-ed for CNN that covered some of these same issues.)[5]

Future Steps

The current dire situation requires action. Several different practical steps for lessening nuclear threats came up during the conference. These steps fall into three broad categories:

Lobbying lawmakers.

The US Congress can take several positive actions, some of which have already been proposed as legislation. As already noted, renewing the START Treaty is one. Others are changing US nuclear policy to reject ever initiating a nuclear exchange (“no first use”), preventing the president from using nuclear weapons without congressional authorization, prohibiting the development of new nuclear weapons that are more likely to be used, or generally limiting spending on these weapons.[6] The status of these measures will be updated when the new Congress, which offers some hope for constructive action, convenes in 2019.[7] Peace activists and organizations can focus their energies on advocacy for them, through emails, phone calls, and—most effective of all—face-to-face meetings with their representatives and senators.

Defunding nuclear weapons.

During her plenary talk, Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), described the Don’t Bank on the Bomb project (www.dontbankonthebomb.com). Don’t Bank on the Bomb provides information on which financial institutions do or do not invest in companies involved in nuclear weapons production. Activists can use this information to campaign for banks and pension funds to divest from nuclear weapons production. Such campaigns not only deprive nuclear weapons companies of funds but also create stigma against producing these weapons.

Raising awareness.

Despite growing dangers, anti-nuclear activism hasn’t yet achieved the necessary popular urgency and visibility. Activists need to inform people, whether through talks, movie screenings, op-eds, letters to the editor, or sharing facts through social media. A specific law, treaty, or policy proposal can serve not only as a focus for action but a springboard for talking about the larger issues involved. The new United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which ICAN played a crucial role in creating, is one example; Consistent Life has frequently held vigils outside the White House on behalf of the treaty.[8] The policy program of the Back from the Brink campaign (www.preventnuclearwar.org), to which Consistent Life and other conference co-sponsors belong, is another. Back from the Brink had a notable success in Maryland when the Baltimore city council passed a resolution endorsing its program.[9] Peace-minded organizations can also join the Back from the Brink campaign as endorsers.

Sobering yet Encouraging

As I said, the conference was sobering, given both the extreme danger from nuclear weapons and the amount of work still to be done. Yet I also left encouraged. The urgency and clarity of the cause motivates me to do more. The present situation requires us to act on behalf of a just and noble cause: to save humanity.

Note: Video of some Two Minutes to Midnight plenary talks and workshops are available for viewing on YouTube, courtesy of Peace Action Maine (https://bit.ly/2HbdKpG).

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life blog (https://bit.ly/2u1sI94).

Notes

[1] John Mecklin, ed., "It Is Now Two Minutes to Midnight," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 25, 2018, https://bit.ly/2DGIuwf.

[2] Zeke Miller and Michael Balsamo, "Trump Says US Will Pull Out of Intermediate Range Nuke Pact," Associated Press, October 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/2Qjt33N.

[3] Julian Borger, "John Bolton Pushing Trump to Withdraw from Russian Nuclear Arms Treaty," Guardian, October 19, 2018, https://bit.ly/2S8OfXt. 

[4] Ira Helfand, Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2013), available from https://bit.ly/2QmuePQ.

[5] Ira Helfand, "Sheer Luck Has Helped Us Avoid Nuclear War So Far--Now We Need to Take Action," CNN, November 17, 2018, https://cnn.it/2BtUm30.

[6] For more information on these proposed policies, see Kingston Reif, "Republican Senators Back New START," Arms Control Association, October 2018, https://bit.ly/2HeOPl8; "Congressman Lieu, Senator Markey Introduce the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017," Office of Congressman Ted Lieu, January 24, 2017, https://bit.ly/2j1hKxx; Daryl G. Kimball, "The Case for a U.S. No-First-Use Policy," Arms Control Association, October 2018, https://bit.ly/2Oxxic5; Max Greenwood, "House Dem Calls for Bill to Restrict Trump's Ability to Launch Preemptive Nukes," The Hill, January 3, 2018, https://bit.ly/2EPZ2ki; "Hold the LYNE," Beyond the Bomb, accessed March 10, 2019, https://bit.ly/2BucM3V; Paul Kawika Martin, "The SANE Act Would Save Taxpayers $100 Billion in Wasteful Nuclear Weapons Spending," Peace Action, May 25, 2017, https://bit.ly/2TFJxCe.

[7] Bryan Bender, "Democrats Going Nuclear to Rein in Trump's Arms Buildup," Politico, November 24, 2018, https://politi.co/2DHa5xf.

[8] For information on the progress of the nuclear weapons ban treaty, see "Signature/Ratification Status of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons," International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, accessed March 10, 2019, https://bit.ly/2xhzRD1.

[9] "City of Baltimore Becomes First Major City to Endorse Back from the Brink," Back from the Brink, August 8, 2018, https://bit.ly/2PSHyMD.

© 2018 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.