100 Seconds to Midnight

Mary Robinson and Ban Ki-moon on the threat of global catastrophe


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“We are in a stage of total denial,” said Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland. “The Clock has moved nearer than ever - nearer than at the height of the Cold War.”

Mary Robinson and Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations, joined Press the Button for a wide-ranging conversation on the twin existential threats facing the world today. 

Both lead The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. They were in Washington, DC for the setting of the Doomsday Clock, an annual event organized by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This year, the Clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been since its inception in 1947. 

Robinson and Ban explain why. 

“We have two existential threats - threats to our very existence,” said Robinson. “And we have a very fragile multilateral system that has become weaker because of a lack of leadership.” 

Nuclear weapons are the first threat, and the danger begins at the top. “The two biggest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia - their relationship is not a good one,” explained Ban. “They are not talking to each other about how to deal with a lack of nuclear disarmament architecture.” 

“Their relationship has been shrouded in mistrust, denial, and counter-argument,” Ban continued. “I’m very concerned about a situation where nuclear wars and conflict can happen.” 

“What is important at this time is that we need to have - we must have - a certain architecture for nuclear disarmament in place before it is too late.” 

The second big threat is the climate crisis. “We’re just not changing course the way scientists have told us we must,” explained Robinson. “Science itself is being undermined.” 

While the climate crisis has been in the spotlight in recent years - and justifiably so - the nuclear issue has receded into the background. “I remember as a young woman marching to ban the bomb,” said Robinson. “It’s necessary now that we alert people to the fact that our leaders are not going in the right direction. They’re actually going in the wrong direction.” 

In order to right the course, The Elders have released a bold “minimization agenda.” The plan calls for the nuclear-armed states - particularly the United States and Russia - to commit to never using nuclear weapons first, taking as many weapons off high-alert as possible, culling numbers of deployed warheads, and finally reducing global stockpiles overall. 

“We know that this is not the full answer, but if we could do that, we’d have a much safer world,” explained Robinson. “At the moment, we’re going the other way. We’re in a new nuclear arms race. We’re talking about hypersonic missiles. We’re talking about a space force and we’re talking about satellites being attacked. It’s very scary.” 

Equally as frightening is a cynical acceptance of present circumstances, said Robinson and Ban. But there are those who are fighting against convention, particularly within the half of the population traditionally excluded from national security policy. 

“When I went to Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe it. It was my first conference on climate change, and I discovered we needed to make it about people, about gender, about human rights,” recalled Robinson. “That was very important.” 

“It would be equally important in security that there is diversity and there is a gender responsiveness to the issues,” Robinson continued. “Certainly, women have been very involved in the [anti-nuclear] marches that I grew up with in the 1970s and early-1980s. And women took over nuclear installations in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.” 

“They were disruptive. And I was saying this morning that I feel, both in relation to the nuclear issue and in relation to the climate issue, we have to disrupt because we cannot continue with business as usual. The status quo is not going to get us to where we need to be.” 

“So, we need to find ways,” said Robinson. “They don’t always have to be brute force or cutting down barbed wire.”

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

About Press the Button: in addition to "The Interview" in which Joe Cirincione sits down with prominent thinkers, legislators, activists, and grantees working on nuclear weapons issues for a short, illuminating conversation, episodes have two other segments: "Early Warning" — a round-up of the most pressing nuclear news in 7 minutes, roughly the same amount of time the US president has to authorize a nuclear weapons launch in the event of an incoming attack on the United States; and the "Q&A"   — a segment where Joe answers questions submitted by our listeners. 



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