In November, just before I went to see Jerry Brown at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, some eleven thousand climate experts signed a statement declaring “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” At eighty-one, Brown, the former governor of California, was retired, but not really, having committed himself to fending off environmental disaster. Recently, he had testified before a House subcommittee, calling an attack by President Trump on California’s auto emissions rules “just plain dumb, if not commercially suicidal.” A month before that, he’d announced the creation of the California-China Climate Institute, a bilateral research and training initiative “to spur further climate action.” And just before finishing his last term as governor, he’d signed on as the executive chair of the Bulletin, which was eager to stake out territory in the climate fight.
I’d arranged to interview Brown about his choice to join the Bulletin, a nonprofit magazine founded in Chicago in 1945 by conscience-stricken alumni of the Manhattan Project. The Bulletin covers all things nuclear and is best known for its annual Doomsday Clock announcement, which draws on expert opinion to report just how close we are to the “midnight” of man-made apocalypse. But the publication’s original remit—to help “formulate the opinion and responsibilities of scientists” and “educate the public” about the many “problems arising from the release of nuclear energy”—has broadened considerably. It now devotes equal attention to the threat of the climate crisis, including in the setting of the clock.
In this regard, the Bulletin and a post-gubernatorial Brown were an ideal match. The meeting I attended, at the regal University Club in downtown Chicago, was Brown’s second with the science and security board, a group of subject-matter experts who set the clock and advise the editorial staff. (The Bulletin also has two other boards: the governing board, a corporate and philanthropic fundraising body, and the board of sponsors, which boasts thirteen Nobel laureates.) A few hundred people arrived, palling around and getting ready to talk all things apocalypse. The dress code for the event had called for business attire, but Brown turned up in crumpled slacks and a navy-blue sweater—a suitcase screwup, he explained.