Eye on the Clock

In a speech anchoring The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Sixth Annual Clock Symposium, California Governor Jerry Brown outlined his state’s leadership in combating climate change and drew clear parallels between the climate crisis and the nuclear arms race. He also demonstrated how humor and a light touch can help address what he called “the problem of big problems.” “If you scare people, or if you sound catastrophic, you’re a kook,” Brown explained. ”But if you don’t wake everybody up, we’re doomed.”

Founded 70 years ago by Manhattan Project physicists with close ties to the University of Chicago, the Bulletin was originally focused on raising awareness about the existential threats of nuclear weapons and related technologies. Over time, it has expanded its scope to include climate change, biosecurity, emerging technologies, and more.

At this year’s Clock Symposium, a series of public discussions held November 16 in the University’s new William Eckhardt Research Center, the Bulletin celebrated its rich legacy and charted a course for the future. Experts in science and security gathered at the daylong event to discuss climate change, nuclear security, and disarmament, among other urgent topics.

After a welcome from Bulletin Executive Director and Publisher Rachel Bronson, Harris School of Public Policy Dean Daniel Diermeier gave the opening remarks, in which he honored the Bulletin for its vision and commitment to evidence-based policy. “Since 2010, the Bulletin has made its home at the Harris School, and it has been a great partnership,” Diermeier said. “We have been very pleased to have the Bulletin be a part of Harris these past five years, and we look forward to a fruitful ongoing collaboration.”

Diermeier concluded his remarks by introducing The Honorable Gareth Evans, chancellor of Australian National University and a former minister of foreign affairs in Australia, who delivered a keynote address in which he warned against the “casual re-embracing” of a Cold War mentality among the nuclear superpowers.  

The first of two panel discussions, moderated by Global Philanthropy Partnership President Adele Simmons, focused on the highly anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference, which took place in Paris November 30–December 11. Tempered by a palpable sense of urgency, the panelists expressed what Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the University of California, San Diego, described as “guarded optimism” about the meeting and the ways in which it differed from past efforts in Copenhagen and Kyoto. Peter Ogden, a senior advisor and fellow at the Harris-affiliated Energy Policy Institute at Chicago, explained that a major difference is the presence of “intended nationally determined contributions,” pledges to cut greenhouse gases that countries made public in October. Describing the INDCs as “expressions of national interest,” Ogden pointed out that they have already led to greater engagement in the negotiations. 

“One of the challenges with the Kyoto Protocol negotiations was that you had negotiators go to Kyoto, set targets, and come back and try to explain to countries why it was a good idea,” Ogden said. The new process, he added, “was developed in countries, and deeply considers politics and many different implications and factors.”

Highlighting a recurring theme of the discussion, Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, pointed out that the Paris goals for reduction of greenhouse gases are not enough. (Many advocates and scientists echoed Kartha’s concerns when the historic deal was signed on December 12.) All panelists agreed that ongoing leadership from politicians, investments from civil society organizations, and, ultimately, pressure from citizens will be necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The second discussion centered on the recent nuclear deal with Iran. A distinguished group of panelists pondered what that historic agreement means for the future of nuclear energy around the globe, particularly for countries looking to balance energy independence with environmental responsibility. Referring to the earlier panel’s assertion that addressing climate change will require that “some oil has to be left in the ground,” Harris Lecturer Kennette Benedict, who recently stepped down after many years as the Bulletin’s publisher and executive director, argued that a fair, politically viable solution to nuclear non-proliferation cannot be based on denying countries access to nuclear technology.

“My real plea is that we understand this as an international problem, not as a problem that the United States and Russia have with others seeking nuclear power and nuclear weapons,” Benedict said. “It’s a question of how countries will develop their own energy sources. Yes, Iran and other countries in the Middle East have plenty of oil, but we’ve just been talking about how we have to leave it in the ground. How are we going to leave it in the ground if we don’t allow for the use of nuclear power?”

Other members of the panel included Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow in the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Jeff Terry, professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology; and moderator Robert Rosner, a Harris professor and the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of astronomy and astrophysics at the University.

The Clock Symposium closed with insightful remarks from former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who spoke to the realities of nuclear proliferation today and raised concerns about increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia. 

Overall, the event demonstrated that the Bulletin’s 70-year legacy is alive and well. “The world is a dangerous place, and the technological and political challenges our planet faces continue to mount, said Bronson. “As it always has, the Bulletin is committed to fostering productive communication between scientific and policy leaders all over the world. We all share an interest in protecting the planet and ensuring the safety and well-being of its inhabitants. Our mission is not only important, it remains urgent.”

—Josh Fox