The Dooms­day Clock is tick­ing

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - Lawrence M. Krauss, a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, has been chair­man of the board of spon­sors of the Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists since 2007. His lat­est book is “The Great­est Story Ever Told … So Far.” By Lawrence M. Krauss

On Jan. 26, the Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists, whose board of spon­sors I chair, re­set its Dooms­day Clock to 2 min­utes, 30 sec­onds to mid­night, the clos­est it has been to mid­night in more than 60 years. At the time, two of the fac­tors we men­tioned in mak­ing our de­ci­sion were omi­nous devel­op­ments in North Korea, and the friv­o­lous and danger­ous lan­guage the new Amer­i­can pres­i­dent had em­ployed be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion re­gard­ing nu­clear weapons and nu­clear war.

Many ob­servers have won­dered whether the events of the past weeks mean that we are even closer to Ar­maged­don than the bul­letin en­vis­aged just seven months ago. We de­cide whether to move the hands of the clock at des­ig­nated, an­nual in­ter­vals. At this point, things aren’t look­ing good for the next assess­ment, in Novem­ber. North Korea’s lat­est batch of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles ap­pears to have the ca­pa­bil­ity of reach­ing the United States, and the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that U.S. in­tel­li­gence be­lieves Py­ongyang has man­aged to minia­tur­ize its nu­clear warheads to fit in the nose of those ICBMs.

This is still a far cry from hav­ing true nu­clear weapons ca­pa­bil­ity. It’s likely the North hasn’t met the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge of manag­ing the mas­sive amounts of heat gen­er­ated when a bal­lis­tic mis­sile re-en­ters Earth’s at­mos­phere headed for its tar­get. Still, Kim Jong Un’s mil­i­tary has moved far faster and fur­ther in ICBM and nu­clear weapons de­vel­op­ment than many had pre­dicted even a year ago.

In re­sponse to th­ese devel­op­ments, Don­ald Trump’s “fire and fury” state­ments are, as usual with the pres­i­dent, murky at best. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son quickly tried to dial back the ten­sion by say­ing Trump’s ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ous com­ments were pri­mar­ily rhetor­i­cal. The sec­re­tary of De­fense, James N. Mat­tis, on the other hand, is­sued his own omi­nous state­ment that the North should “cease any con­sid­er­a­tions of ac­tions that would lead to the end of its regime and de­struc­tion of its peo­ple.” Then on Thurs­day and Fri­day, Trump dou­bled down, say­ing the U.S. was “locked and loaded” for the con­fronta­tion.

Cer­tainly, the fact that Tiller­son and the State De­part­ment ap­pear to take a back seat in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to mil­i­tary so­lu­tions can­not be lost on the lead­er­ship in North Korea. To step back from the brink, both par­ties need to be re­minded that nu­clear war is un­winnable.

Any di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion be­tween North Korea and the U.S. would be dev­as­tat­ing, and the like­li­hood that a con­ven­tional con­flict would es­ca­late into nu­clear war is suf­fi­ciently high to give any ra­tio­nal ac­tor pause. Mil­lions could die in North and South Korea alone. The phys­i­cal ef­fects would be global ( a “lim­ited” nu­clear war, us­ing 50-100 weapons, could af­fect cli­mate and in turn agri­cul­ture world­wide, re­sult­ing in per­haps a bil­lion deaths over a decade), and the po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial con­se­quences in our in­te­grated world would be equally cat­a­strophic.

North Korea ob­vi­ously views the ac­tions of the United States, and to some ex­tent those of the rest of the world, as an ef­fort to desta­bi­lize the ex­ist­ing regime. Wash­ing­ton needs to make its fo­cus clearly the North’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, and noth­ing else. As re­cently as 2005 (al­beit be­fore Kim Jong Un’s as­cen­sion), the North pub­licly signed onto the goal of even­tual de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the en­tire Korean penin­sula.

Diplo­matic ini­tia­tives prob­a­bly re­quire di­rect talks, the kind of di­a­logue Pres­i­dent Rea­gan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev con­ducted. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could show that it would take ne­go­ti­a­tions se­ri­ously by back­ing away from its at­tacks on an­other nu­clear deal, the Iran agree­ment, in­stead of seek­ing to undo it. And the U.S. could fi­nally use this op­por­tu­nity to affirm a “no first use” pol­icy, in­stead of im­plic­itly threat­en­ing a pre­emp­tive strike. Any one of th­ese moves could help turn back the hands of the Dooms­day Clock.

Dooms­day cal­cu­la­tions also must weigh pro­nounce­ments like the state­ment re­leased last week by one of Trump’s key evan­gel­i­cal ad­vi­sors, Robert Jef­fress: “God has given Trump au­thor­ity to take out Kim Jong Un.” Per­haps Jef­fress is hop­ing for Ar­maged­don, and a sub­se­quent sec­ond com­ing of Christ. At least Trump ap­pears to be court­ing the re­li­gious right to so­lid­ify his po­lit­i­cal base, not be­cause he ac­tu­ally shares their be­liefs. Jef­fress’ com­ment would be more wor­ri­some if Mike Pence, a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian, were pres­i­dent.

Last week marked the 72nd an­niver­sary of the first use of a nu­clear weapon against a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, at Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, Japan. Be­fore Pres­i­dent Tru­man dropped the sec­ond bomb he warned the Ja­panese to ex­pect “a rain of ruin ... the like of which has never been seen on this earth,” lan­guage re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to Trump’s. But Tru­man knew there would be no re­tal­i­a­tion; he could rely on what Trump can­not: a mo­nop­oly on atomic weapons.

The Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists and the Dooms­day Clock were es­tab­lished by the very physi­cists who worked on those first bombs, and their suc­ces­sors have con­tin­ued the task of warn­ing the world of the dan­gers of nu­clear war. How­ever ac­cu­rately the clock con­veys the threat, it can­not make us safe. Af­ter Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, Al­bert Ein­stein said, “Ev­ery­thing has changed, save the way we think.” We must pres­sure our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to ad­just their think­ing, and their ac­tions, to the hor­ri­fy­ing re­al­i­ties we face from nu­clear weapons.

Wes Bausmtih Los An­ge­les Times

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