Letter to Australian Federal Parliamentarians re Doomsday Clock

E-mail Print PDF

31 JAN 2018

Dear Parliamentarian:
We write to you because the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock now reads 2 minutes to metaphorical ‘midnight’, ‘midnight’ being the probable end of civilization bought about by nuclear conflict. This issue deserves to be your topmost priority.

This is not an esoteric matter. It is one that has implications for every single Australian, and indeed, obviously, for the entire world. It is a matter that should (as should Climate Change and one or two other issues) – be at the very top of the list of priorities of anyone who is concerned for the welfare and safety of Australians, whatever your political persuasion, and wherever you happen to be.  
Yet it completely fails to register as a political issue in Australia. This is bizarre.  It endangers Australian lives.

The re-calculation and re-modelling of Nuclear Winter scenarios by Prof. Alan Robock, Brian Toon, and others from 2006 onwards, with the latest NASA climate models have shown that the 'nuclear winter' effect postulated in the '80s, far from having been incorrect actually underestimated the catastrophic climatic effects of large scale nuclear weapons use.
The 'Doomsday Clock', so – called, was created in 1947 by cartoonist Martyl Langsdorf, spouse of a distinguished physicist, for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, set up by Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi amongst others, in the wake of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Bulletin included many of those who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and others who had refused to do so for reasons of conscience.  The Doomsday Clock was a symbolic way of showing just how close the world was to nuclear 'midnight', the Apocalypse, or Armageddon. It was initially set, almost randomly, at 7 minutes to midnight.
Since then, setting the hands of the clock has become a very serious business amongst roomfuls of Nobel prizewinners and nuclear weapons/disarmament experts, who debate for months where the hands should be. These are not people whose judgements are lightly set aside, and the current position of the hands represents a collective, not an individual, estimate arrived at by the very people who are best qualified to make such an estimate, and devote a large part of their lives to thinking about it.  
The hands furthest position from midnight was 17 minutes to, after the cold war 'ended' (it's now clear that in fact it never did end) in 1990. Its closest ever position has been 2 minutes to, in 1953, when the US and Russia first tested thermonuclear weapons (H-Bombs), and the US actively talked about 'taking out' Russia with a pre-emptive first strike. In 1983, a terrifying year in which the world nearly ended twice, the clock – hands were at 3 minutes to 'midnight'.
The Doomsday Clock is by no means the only estimate that suggests the risk of an (accidental or otherwise) nuclear apocalypse is as high as it has ever been: such estimates have now been emanating from former US Secretaries of Defence, and former US and Russian commanders of nuclear forces (not to mention people such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Australia's own Gareth Evans and Malcolm Fraser while he still lived) for a number of years, each year becoming more dire.
And of course, the hands are CURRENTLY at 2 minutes to, making their current position the equal-closest ever, with 1953.
This ought to concern every Australian Parliamentarian, indeed, every Parliamentarian  in every country worldwide. The current position of the  'Doomsday Clock' should rocket nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament up to the top of every politicians priority list. Right now it is the elephant in the room of which no-one will speak, but the elephant is trumpeting more and more loudly and threatens to break things. If not addressed and pacified it will destroy the room, even as we continue to obsess over any issue other than this one.
In Australia at least, nuclear disarmament has been absolutely nowhere on the spectrum of political debate. This must change if we are to avert catastrophe. Logically, it should be at the very top of everyones political agenda.
Civilization will not indefinitely survive a Doomsday Clock reading of '2 minutes to midnight'. At some point midnight itself will strike. This to repeat is not an abstract event that will happen someplace else. It has direct implications for Australian citizens and Australian cities. At a very minimum, US nuclear command and control nodes here will be targeted (NW Cape, Pine Gap). However, the risk that Australian cities will be nuclear targets, with potentially millions of casualties is very real. If so, you, your electorates, are in the target coordinates. 
Large scale nuclear war would at a minimum, destroy what we call or miscall, 'civilization'. It could place actual human survival (as well as the survival of most complex land-based life-forms) in question. That HAS to be an 'existential' issue that 'trumps' all other issues, indeed all other possible issues. 
Indeed, as few as five large nuclear weapons exploded in space could destroy the internet, power, all communications other than carrier pigeon or pony express, and make the global financial system, itself largely electronic, literally disappear, taking us back to the 18th century in milliseconds. The use of thousands of warheads, e.g. in a US-Russia or a US-China war, would kill most humans, in a roughly 90 minute period.  The nuclear winter that ensued from a US/NATO - Russia/China confrontation would kill most of those humans who somehow survived the 90 minute holocaust of the actual confrontation, giving a global bodycount not of millions, not of hundreds of millions but of billions. Australia would not be spared. The probability of such an event sequence is not remote: According to some estimates it may be as high as 50/50. 
The looming prospect of a US-DPRK nuclear war, should it actually take place, would at a minimum be a catastrophe that could kill tens of millions. It could also (God forbid)  morph into a wider nuclear exchange (as discussed in previous para) that could be civilization-terminating.
There simply is no other issue anyplace on the planet, and anyplace on any rational persons political priority list, that could be more important than making the end of civilization and possible human extinction, less likely. This is what is at stake in the Doomsday Clock's recent announcement. 
Yet even the more serious media treat this issue- simply the most serious issue there ever could be – as if it were an esoteric marginal matter important only to a few policy ‘wonks’. Yet the fact is that this is a life and death issue for every human being, and for every Australian. 
Every Australian Parliamentarian – and every policymaker worldwide – needs to wake up to what is truly important and treat the issue of reducing the risk of nuclear war, accidental or otherwise, as the existential threat to us all that it truly is.
In saying this we gratefully acknowledge that many parliamentarians both in Australia and worldwide have signed the ICAN ‘Pledge’ to work for the Nuclear Ban Treaty. This deserves congratulations. Many have also involved themselves in the global organisation Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND), which has a wide range of activities, notably in the area of reducing nuclear risk, and at the highest levels,  and many of course are involved in both. These are positive steps, but much more needs to be done. (The principal author of this letter, John Hallam, is Australian coordinator of PNND).  
For Australia that means vigorously supporting the following measures:
--Reversing current opposition to the nuclear 'Ban Treaty' (TPNW) and instead, signing, ratifying, and encouraging others, (especially US allies in a similar position to ourselves), to do likewise.
--Lobbying the US, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, the DPRK, and Russia, to sign the Ban Treaty. (TPNW) Not taking 'NO' for an answer.
--Working vigorously to promote measures to reduce immediate, short-term, nuclear risk.
--Lobbying vigorously the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and the DPRK to take immediate measures to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, independently of what they do or do not do with the Ban Treaty.(TPNW)  This includes measures such as reducing the state of alert of nuclear weapons systems, taking steps to increase Presidential decision-making time, improving military to military communication, and no-first-use declarations, all of which have been under consideration for decades. 
--Doing whatever it takes to reduce the risk of an immediate US-DPRK nuclear conflict. As a matter of sensible foresight, his should start with absolutely precondition- free talks, aimed simply at asking 'what would enable us to live in peace together?'.
--Supporting and participating in, and urging others to support and participate in, the upcoming UN High Level Conference on nuclear disarmament to be held in New York this coming May.
I am sure that ALL Australian parliamentarians could support these reasonable and rational measures.
Finally, Nuclear weapons, nuclear risks, and nuclear disarmament, must be lifted to the very top of the political agenda, both in Australia and elsewhere. Other matters are simply irrelevant in comparison to the priority of human survival, which is what is ultimately at stake. Our (and other countries) political system's failure – indeed our very lack of interest – in doing so places at risk everything we hold dear and everyone we know including ourselves.
John Hallam
UN Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner
People for Nuclear Disarmament
Human Survival Project
Australian Coordinator, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND)
Prof. Frank Hutchinson, (Emerit) 
Human Survival Project

Karen Collier (Peace Ambassador)
Council for Peace with Justice (CPJ)

Judy Blyth,
People for Nuclear Disarmament W.A.,
Nick Deane, Marrickville Peace Group