by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
Thirty years ago I worked with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) studying the health consequences of nuclear weapons. Even if they were never used, these weapons–their manufacture and testing–harmed populations. All over the world governments had mined uranium, and assembled and tested nuclear weapons. To create atomic arsenals, every nuclear power had dangerously polluted and contaminated environments where people live and work. And governments usually kept secret from civilians the consequences –cancers, birth defects, and continuing environmental degradation capable of harming future generations.
Thermonuclear weapons–bombs and missile warheads–could destroy life on our earth. Everyone on earth used to depend on this ever-present risk of annihilation to deter use. As IPPNW studied the health damage from mining, manufacturing, and testing these weapons, we found ourselves consulting the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Many times since 1947, the Bulletin had reset the hands of the clock to indicate how close the world was to doomsday.
The closer the clock moved toward midnight, the more likely that life on the planet was about to come to an end. Bulletin nuclear scientists set the clock at 23h58 in 1953, when the two nuclear powers escalated beyond fission weapons and began testing thermonuclear or fusion weapons. They backed the clock further away from midnight when the Bulletin considered nuclear doomsday less likely, as in 1963, when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
Since 2007, the Bulletin has adjusted the Doomsday Clock to reflect the danger to the world of global warming in addition to nuclear weapons. In January of this year, the Bulletin announced its latest decision about where to set the clock. They left the clock at three minutes before midnight, writing:
“…our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016…is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.”
And that was before the United States had picked its candidates for President. Why should the US election affect the Doomsday Clock months before a new President is sworn in?
Donald Trump, in suggesting that the US had shown excessive restraint in the past, and that he might use nuclear weapons against ISIS, spelled out a decidedly more aggressive US nuclear weapons policy. And Hillary Clinton, too, used a specific threat to describe how she as President would use nuclear weapons. In 2008 she said that if Iran attacked Israel, she would attack Iran. “…[W]e would be able to totally obliterate them…”
Thus both presidential candidates have moved away from Barack Obama’s restraint. Surely, to alert the world that the danger of nuclear war has increased, it is time for the Bulletin to consider moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. (Facebook page here.) He directed the Vermont Department of Health, the Colorado Department of Health, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. National Vaccine Program.