Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking more than a year ago to the scientists who measure civilization’s proximity to global disaster, lamented that it’s difficult to talk about big problems such as the threat of climate change and the nuclear arms race.
Those who speak clearly about existential threats and scare their audiences “run the danger of being called a kook,” Brown explained at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock Symposium. But the Democratic governor with an ear for the esoteric said he didn’t want his listeners to become complacent, either.
“And that’s the other problem,” Brown said in Chicago. “If you don’t say much, if you don’t speak in the language commensurate with the problem, then people don’t hear and don’t understand and won’t get the knowledge. And, too often, those with all this power are not sharing what they know.”
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Brown earlier this year joined the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group that works to prevent attacks with weapons of mass destruction. He is holding exhaustive discussions with experts and slowly imparting his knowledge about the abstract yet persistent dangers.
We all ought to wake up about it.
Gov. Jerry Brown
Speaking at a summer event tied to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he speculated that few of the attendees could begin to fathom the power of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. America has 54,000 times the firepower that was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II, Brown said at the July appearance.
“Nuclear materials are loose in many places. If the Islamist fanatics get a hold of it, they could drop it on the nation’s Capitol, decapitating our country,” Brown warned. “This is serious business. It takes a real change in America, but it takes working with” world leaders ... “We have a lot to do. (There has been) virtually no conversation about this and it is damned dangerous ... We all ought to wake up about it.”
Brown is traveling this week to Washington for his first board meeting of the threat initiative, following a presidential election that roused awareness about the arms race not seen since before the fall of the Soviet Union. Late in the campaign, Hillary Clinton and a supporting super PAC, over doomsday images of mushroom clouds, cautioned voters that Trump’s uneven temperament should disqualify him from accessing the nuclear launch codes. Trump countered that World War III would break out over Syria “if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
I have confidence that I’ll do the right thing, the right job. But it’s a very, very scary thing.
President Donald Trump
After taking office, Trump described receiving the launch codes as a “sobering moment.” Asked if it kept him up at night, Trump said it did not.
“I have confidence that I’ll do the right thing, the right job. But it’s a very, very scary thing,” he told ABC News. Repeated statements by the president, however, are stirring concerns, including vows to “expand” America’s nuclear arsenal, reviving the nuclear arms race. Undetermined is the fate of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump previously described as “a disaster” and suggested he would tear up, as well as how to handle North Korea, the subject of his tough campaign talk.
Brown came to the Nuclear Threat Initiative board in January. The organization was founded in 2001 by Ted Turner and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, the co-chair and chief executive officer who said the veteran California official brings leadership experience after emerging as an advocate for reducing the nuclear threat.
Last year, amid the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, Brown participated in panels on the topic hosted by the Atlantic Council and Global Zero. Earlier, he joined former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz at a Doomsday Clock event. The clock, which warns how close we are to destroying the world, was recently moved from 3 minutes to midnight to 2 1/2 , as Brown cautioned about in an interview with NPR’s “Science Friday.”
Brown and dozens of global leaders, including Perry, Shultz and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, last year signed onto a letter calling on all nations “to take action to prevent nuclear terrorism and a new arms race.”
“In the defensive posture, as deterrents, (nuclear weapons) have been enormously effective,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a board member with Brown and an ex-U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security. “But over time, one has to question whether they have become inherently dangerous in and of themselves.”
Brown authored a 3,500-word submission last year in the New York Review of Books of Perry’s “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” Perry, among the experts who helped shape Brown’s views on the topic, believes the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was during the Cold War – “and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
Perry, in an interview with The Sacramento Bee, said there are a few scenarios that could lead to nuclear ruin, including the one described by Brown of a terror attack in Washington, or another U.S. city.
Other ways include regional nuclear war not involving the U.S. directly, nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, or what Perry describes as an “accidental war,” started by a false detection in the warning system. He said such a false alarm has occurred three times in the U.S. and twice in the former Soviet Union. Each time the alarm was determined to be false before the presidents got the word, Perry said.
“In that case, I do care who the president is because I want a president, when he gets that notification and he has six or seven minutes to decide, I want him to be calm and thoughtful in temperament,” said Perry, a Clinton supporter. “And, you can decide yourself whether the president meets that test.”
For a state leader who has made combating global climate change the centerpiece of his final term, Brown’s Washington trip is an opportunity to stimulate the slumbering world in the area of nuclear dangers, Perry said. Brown has influence over national officials responsible for nuclear decisions, including Trump’s administration and the GOP-controlled Congress. He also visits periodically with world leaders, giving him outsized sway in a discussion that, aside from former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, has mostly fallen outside a state executive’s purview.
He has what you might call the bully pulpit. He speaks and people listen.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry
“He has what you might call the bully pulpit,” Perry said, mentioning the responses around the world to Brown’s book review. “He speaks and people listen.”
Brown, in the book review, fretted that no one is discussing the issues troubling Perry, calling it another example of the rigid conformity that often dominates public discourse, and suggesting he saw it in the Vietnam War, and in the invasion of Iraq. “Intelligent people were doing mindless – and catastrophic – things,” he said.
“‘Sleepwalking’” is the term historians now use for the stupidities that got European leaders into World War I and for the mess they unleashed at Versailles,” Brown said. “And sleepwalking still continues as NATO and Russia trade epithets and build their armies and Moscow and Washington modernize their nuclear overkill. A new Cold War.”
Brown’s interest in the nuclear danger, substantiated by prodigious reading and probing discussions, stretch back to his formative years. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, the French philosopher who is said to practice “enlightened doomsaying,” shared a mentor with Brown, the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, and during the late 1960s and early 1970s they attended meetings in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, where “the whole world would meet.” Later, Brown sought to replicate this atmosphere in Oakland.
“He has always been thinking about these issues,” Dupuy said, “but at the time, it was much less about the threats to the survival of humankind than about what it means to live well. The critique of our way of life was there, too,” he added. “But the goal was different. Today, the goal is to avoid major catastrophes.”
Indeed, for much of his second stint as governor, Brown largely refrained from engaging too deeply in the subject of nuclear weapons, saying in 2015 that “when you’re governor, you don’t have to talk about this international stuff.”
He is taking on a new role, one not of a politician.
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, philosopher and longtime Brown confidant
In Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Dupuy arranged for Brown to give a university talk, “and, obviously, he moves people.” It was in Paris that Brown consistently drew comparisons between nuclear and climate threats. At his lecture to scientists in Chicago, Brown mused about the connection, noting that they both have catastrophic consequences. “They both are such that they don’t capture the popular imagination right now,” he said, adding, “they both take widespread collaboration across many countries.”
Dupey said Brown digs even deeper since the election of Trump. At 78 years old, Brown “can be in a conversation for five hours without even thinking of drinking or eating anything ... When he is engaged in the conversation, that’s the only thing that matters to him.”
“Looking beyond,” his time in the governorship, Dupuy observed, “he is taking on a new role, one not of a politician ... William Perry said so himself, that he feels the need to play the role of the ‘prophet of doom.’ Jerry Brown is very close to him, so maybe that’s what he’s going to do after stepping down in 20 months.”