Competition in the magazine industry has always been fierce. So when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sought to launch its small publication in 1947, it needed a good marketing ploy. Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of what is known simply as the Bulletin to doomsday trackers, spoke with Carnegie Corporation of New York's Robert Nolan recently about the publication’s origin story, why the clock is as close to midnight as it has ever been, and plans to benchmark other existential threats — before it’s too late.
Tell us about the Bulletin’s origin story.
The Bulletin was started in 1945 as literally a black-and-white, six-page bulletin by scientists who were trying to reach the public. It was about the nuclear issue; there was a lot of concern and attention about it. In 1947 our founders wanted the Bulletin to become a magazine. Well, to be a magazine in 1947, you needed a really good cover.
The Bulletin had very little money and one of the Manhattan Project scientists was married to the artist Martyl Langsdorf. She was an oil painter and said she could create something for the first cover that might be replicated. She fully understood the urgency and the concern of the Manhattan Project scientists, but also understood the need to create something that would reach a broader audience. So she came up with the clock and set it at seven minutes to midnight.
What I think was also really interesting about it was our agency in it. She put the clock ticking to midnight with this notion that we could halt the time — and that we could turn it back. To this day, that idea of agency is very powerful.
How does the magazine help drive the discourse about nukes and other threats?
It’s a communications device. When the clock gets announced, it is a global news story, because people get it. Our hope for the clock is that when the time comes out, people have a conversation about whether they think we got it right.
It’s a communications device that allows a huge audience to talk about very complicated issues.
Some people think it should be closer. Others think it should be farther. If they’re having those conversations around their dinner table, with their friends on whatever medium — you know, social media platforms — that’s the point. We stopped the news cycle. People were talking about nuclear issues and existential threats — and that’s really hard to do. It provides an opening to people who otherwise often feel a bit alienated from this conversation.
And I love the questions I get when we go out and talk about it. For example: Why don’t you include something else? We’re talking about existential threats to humanity, and there are very few things that meet that threshold. It’s a communications device that allows a huge audience to talk about very complicated issues.
What are some of the other existential threats that you all are looking at?
So, we, as an organization, look at nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. In our current statement, which we released in 2019, we talk about information warfare as a threat multiplier. Both climate issues and nuclear issues require a great deal of careful analysis and real discussion about how to build public policies to reduce those threats. We’re very concerned that information warfare is blurring fact and fiction, driving human emotion to overtake rational discourse.
We call it a new abnormal. On disruptive technologies, we look at AI and we look at CRISPR, in particular, because both of those have implications for what we think it means to be human. These are areas that require ethical and political attention about the future of humanity.
Both climate issues and nuclear issues require a great deal of careful analysis and real discussion about how to build public policies to reduce those threats. We’re very concerned that information warfare is blurring fact and fiction, driving human emotion to overtake rational discourse.
When determining what time to set the clock, how do you balance between risks that have very different dynamics and implications?
It is really hard. When we set the clock, we ask: Is humanity safer or at greater risk than it was last year at this time? We also look at it over time. When we changed the clock in 2015 from five to three minutes, climate was a very big driver of that change. Climate scientists were pointing to the urgency of solving this problem that we’re going to feel in 50 to 75 years, even though we’re starting to feel some of it now, and we’re saying that the changes need to be made now.
Of the last two years, the nuclear issues have really predominated the discussion because the severity of the climate challenge was already calculated into the 2015 move from five minutes to three.
In this last go-round, what was really important was to make sure that staying at two minutes to midnight wasn’t interpreted as good news. The message we wanted to convey was that it is still as dangerous as it has ever been, and we wanted to drive home this notion of a new abnormal: that we were going to be in this situation for some time and it was very uncomfortable and very dangerous.
What are some of the key factors in being at two minutes to midnight now, and how is this similar to the last time the clock was at two minutes?
The last time it was moved to two minutes to midnight was in 1953, when both the U.S. and the Soviets had tested the H-bomb. We were coming into the height of the Cold War, and the lines between the U.S. and the Soviets were just being drawn.
There was no architecture for arms control, yet. There were no controls that they could envision, and it was hard to imagine not using these weapons. Now, after 30 years of investing in an arms control architecture that kept the two sides talking to each other, things are clearly deteriorating. We’re not optimistic about New START, the NPT review is coming up, the U.S. pulled out of the INF, the Iran deal is falling apart.
The commitment to things that worked is no longer there, and the two sides aren’t talking to each other. What makes it even worse is that other technologies are coming, and big, global issues like climate change need to be addressed, and we don’t have an architecture or a good example for moving forward. We’ve gone through this period where it got dangerous, but then it got better, better, better; and now, like in 1953, we’ve got these horrendous technologies and a commitment to invest in them, without the architecture to manage them, and that is very dangerous.
Learn more about how Carnegie Corporation of New York continues to address these and other security issues facing the world today.