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Outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown has a new job: preventing nuclear war

Brown is joining the team behind the Doomsday Clock, which combats existential risks to humanity.

Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists Moves The ‘Doomsday Clock’ 30 Seconds Closer To Symbolic Apocalypse
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveils the 2018 Doomsday Clock on January 25, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has been sounding the alarm about the risks of nuclear weapons since his first term as governor in the 1970s. In the last few years, other threats to a stable human future have started to concern him as well.

Last week, the governor — whose term ends this January — announced that he’s accepted a position as the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit that combats the risks of nuclear war and other threats to the world.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by researchers who worked on the atomic bomb. It published a regular magazine in which the scientists who built the bomb made the case for worldwide disarmament. Today, it publishes research on “manmade existential threats such as nuclear war, climate change, and disruptive technologies.”

The organization is best known for its Doomsday Clock, which the group updates annually to reflect the risks facing humanity. The clock currently says we are two minutes from midnight — the closest we’ve been since the Cold War to a disaster that could annihilate humanity.

Brown has had a distinguished career: governor of California from 1975 to 1983, then from 2011 to the present; a stint as mayor of Oakland in the 2000s; and three failed campaigns for the US presidency in 1976, 1980, and 1992. In 1984, he wrote that the US and the Soviet Union seemed to be at a turning point: “Soon, we shall either use our new weapons and die or, rejecting the outworn logic of war, find change in some form of mutual trust,” he wrote.

Decades later, he still worries that we’re failing to grapple with the risks of our nuclear policy. “I like to deal with the big stuff,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “And there’s nothing bigger than this.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes research and updates on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging risks to humanity from new technologies. All of those feature in their Doomsday Clock. In their 2018 statement, though, nuclear risks loomed largest. “Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race,” the group wrote, “one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals.”

Brown has been actively involved in trying to manage that risk. He was sharply critical of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 arms control treaty prohibiting certain kinds of nuclear missiles. He is on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to mitigate nuclear war risks, and he met this month with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to discuss global security threats.

“When humankind has in its hands the technology to absolutely destroy all of civilization there is nothing so important it ought to prevent dialogue and deep discussion,” he told the Associated Press. “We still ought to realize that ending civilization is a bigger problem than any of the other problems we have with Russia.”

The looming specter of existential risks

Brown and the team behind the Doomsday Clock are not alone in raising concerns about nuclear war and other threats.

The Global Challenges Foundation, which publishes an annual report on global catastrophic risks, named many of the same concerns that have driven the Doomsday Clock team to move us from six minutes to midnight in 2010 to two minutes to midnight today. Nuclear war is prominent among the risks they consider; they’re also worried about climate change, pandemics, AI, and threats we can’t yet anticipate — just like, 10 years before the atomic bomb, only a few scientists had any inkling it was possible.

It’s a scary thought. But the annual reports from the team at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists try to focus on solutions, not just scaremongering. “It is two minutes to midnight, but the Doomsday Clock has ticked away from midnight in the past, and during the next year, the world can again move it further from apocalypse,” said the 2018 report, arguing for arms deals and climate action.

Brown, too, was upbeat, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Hopefully I can pull people back from the brink.”

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