On Jan. 27, former California Gov. Jerry Brown — now executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — spoke passionately to fellow global leaders, scientists, and public figures at the Doomsday Clock virtual news conference. “It’s time to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them,” he said.
Brown’s statement followed the announcement that the Doomsday Clock will remain at 100 seconds to midnight — as close to midnight as the clock has ever been. The clock was created more than 70 years ago by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group founded by Albert Einstein and others who helped develop the first atomic weapons. Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the clock's time changes to indicate the world’s vulnerability to global catastrophe due to threats like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and nuclear weapons.
For faith leaders and activists, the threat of nuclear weapons is immense, and they hope the Biden administration will make disarmament and abolition of nuclear weapons a priority.
“The risk of nuclear holocaust, it seems to me, is one that should engage us more than anything,” Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., a professor of ethics and human development at Georgetown University, told Sojourners. “All of God’s creation is at risk.”
Although there has been some progress in the fight against nuclearization, activists and faith leaders like Christiansen say it’s not enough.
On Jan. 22, the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons went effect, but it wasn’t signed by the U.S. or any other country that has nuclear weapons.
Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladmir Putin agreed to extend the New START treaty, which includes the last binding limit on the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals left standing in the wake of the Trump era. However, as The New York Times reported, “the extension does not cover tactical nuclear weapons, nor does it reverse Trump’s decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement, amid American charges that Russia was violating its terms ...”
As Gerard Powers, coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in a statement to Sojourners, “the nuclear signs of the times are as dire as ever.”
“The U.S. has embarked on the biggest nuclear ‘modernization’ program since the early Reagan era,” Powers wrote. “It has walked away from most nuclear arms control treaties. It has revived dubious notions that more weapons, more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons, missile defense, and nuclear bean-counting will make the world safe … [yet] the ban treaty and Catholic teaching are clear: law and morality demand that the world reverse course and revive efforts at arms control and disarmament.”
For Powers, meaningful arms control would involve making deep cuts in the nuclear modernization program and redirecting that money to acute human needs (such as the pandemic); reviving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and maintaining the moratorium on nuclear tests and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Diane Randall, general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said that the ideal goal is not only disarmament but the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
“We’re modernizing how effectively we can use weapons of destruction,” Randall told Sojourners. “It’s almost an offensive concept that we’re getting better at it.”
The Friends Committee on National Legislation is currently campaigning stop the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a replacement Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. According to Randall, federal attention should be focused on stopping the emergencies that currently threaten our lives — like the pandemic and climate change — rather than on creating new weapons of mass destruction.
“People talk about nuclear weapons as being an existential threat, but the fact is there are other global imperatives that are real threats that are causing huge issues around our security,” Randall said. “We should pause and consider how we will actually create a world in which humanity can live and thrive ...”
Mary Anne Grady Flores and Bill Ofenloch are both Catholic Workers, anti-nuclear activists, and members of the team that supported the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of seven Catholic peace activists who committed an act of civil disobedience in 2018 in Kings Bay, Ga., at a naval base that houses nuclear submarines capable of delivering Trident missiles. The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 website professes that the group seeks “to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons, racism and economic exploitation.”
The mission to abolish nuclear weapons, Grady Flores and Ofenloch said, is intertwined with abolishing racism, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.
“We have the kill power just in the Trident submarine alone to kill all human life on the planet twice over,” Grady Flores told Sojourners. “Police guns and nuclear weapons are all a part of the same system. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, white supremacy, U.S. total global domination, and capitalism, or extreme materialism, always work together. They’re totally connected with racial injustice throughout the country. Nobody gives up life, labor, or resources without being forced. It’s critical to deal with this right now.”
Yet, with issues like the pandemic and political tensions at the forefront of the public sphere, the seemingly vague threat of a nuclear war perhaps isn’t pressing enough. In spite of calls from some faith leaders to abolish nuclear weapons — including the call Pope Francis issued in August — an anti-nuclear agenda seems low on Biden’s priority list and the public’s.
“There aren’t that many anti-nuclear activists in the mainstream Catholic Church,” Ofeloch said. “They buy the government’s line that [nuclear weapons are] protecting us with their deterrent power.”
A daily reality
There is one group of people, however, for whom the ramifications of nuclear weapons are a daily reality: downwinders, or communities that were exposed to radioactive contamination or nuclear fallout from atmospheric or underground nuclear weapons testing and nuclear accidents.
At an online event hosted by the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons on Jan. 28, Tina Cordova, a downwinder who co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said that the people of New Mexico who were exposed to radiation “have been dealing with this for over 75 years with no recognition and no assistance.”
“What’s most amazing about this is that the government has controlled the messaging around the Trinity Site and what took place there in regards to the Indigenous and people of color who lived in the vicinity,” Cordova said. She noted that the government insisted that the area where it tested the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945 was “uninhabited,” despite census data indicating that at least 40,000 people lived within a 50-mile radius.
Now, those New Mexico downwinders are not covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and are left to cover their own medical bills, which are compounded by COVID-19.
“When we’ve been in D.C. and we’ve asked the question why [we don’t get adequate compensation for our health effects due to our overexposure to radiation from nuclear test sites], the answer is always we don’t have enough money,” Cordova said at the Zoom gathering. “That’s not acceptable any longer.”
For anti-nuclear activists, it’s past time to act.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, including 13 Nobel Laureates, requests:
- The United States should declare its commitment to no-first-use of nuclear weapons and persuade allies and rivals to agree that no-first-use is a step toward security and stability.
- Russia can rejoin the NATO-Russia Council and open serious discussions on risk reduction and on avoiding escalation dangers.
- North Korea can agree to codify and allow verification of its moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile tests.
- Iran and the United States can jointly return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Iran can agree to new, broader talks about Middle East security and constraints on its missile and other military activities.
- The new U.S. administration can fill leadership positions for science-based agencies on the basis of scientific expertise and credentials; prohibit interference with the production or dissemination of executive branch scientific reports; use the best possible science to inform policy considerations; allow government scientists to engage with the public about their work; and provide funding to restore and strengthen international scientific cooperation.
With midnight closer than ever, all eyes are on Biden to see how much he will prioritize these calls.
“Today the hands [of the Doomsday Clock] are still,” former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a member of The Elders, an international non-governmental group of peace-and-justice-seeking public figures convened by Nelson Mandela, said at the Doomsday Clock press conference.
“But that doesn’t mean the existential threats we have faced remain immobile,” she continued. “We cannot afford to waste any more time.”