Doomsday Clock Moved One Minute Closer to Midnight

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2012 (ENS) – “Inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change,” prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists today to push the hands of the Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight.

“It is five minutes to midnight,” said the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists group, announcing their decision at a news conference in Washington. “Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007.”

The Doomsday Clock now stands at five minutes to midnight. (Image courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2010, when it was pushed back one minute from five to six minutes before midnight. The clock’s hands have been adjusted 20 times since its inception in 1947, when the clock was initially set to seven minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock expresses how close this group of scientists belives humanity is to catastrophic destruction, symbolized by midnight on the clock. The group monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

“Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock,” said Lawrence Krauss, co-chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors and a professor with the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics departments at Arizona State University.

“As we see it,” he told reporters, “the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”

“Even though climate change is happening and is getting more urgent as we speak,” warned Krauss, “no comprehensive global action is happening.”

Jiaxing coal-fired power plant in Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast (Photo by zpsohu (Panoramio)

“The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere,” warned Allison Macfarlane, who chairs the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board and is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on American’s Nuclear Future, and an associate professor with George Mason University.

“The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification,” said Macfarlane.

“Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy and emissions for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect,” she said. “Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.”

Science skeptics who diminish and discount scientific findings are a “worrisome trend,” said Robert Socolow, a member of the BAS Science and Security Board.

“The world needs the political leadership to affirm the primacy of science or problems will be far worse than they are today, said Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and co-principal investigator with the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University.

He and the other BAS representatives at the news conference expressed concern that, in Krauss’ words, “politics trumps science” at a time when elections are coming up in the United States, Russia and France and new leadership is soon to take over in China.

Doomsday Clock graph. The lower the graph, the higher the probability of catastrophe is considered to be. (Graph by Fastfission)

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first U.S. atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using the imagery of apocalypse – midnight – and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion – countdown to zero – to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

While the group is opposed to nuclear weapons, it neither endorses or does not endorse nuclear power. It maintains that nuclear power must be safe and if done well could help with climate change.

The decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin’s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

Jayantha Dhanapala is a member of the BAS Board of Sponsors, a former United Nations under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003), and ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States (1995-1997).

“The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world’s inhabitants several times over,” he warned today.

United States Trident II (D-5) missile underwater launch (Photo courtesy U.S. Defense Dept.)

“Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation, and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing,” he said.

As a positive signal, Dhanapala pointed to the ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States which reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations.

“However,” warned Dhanapala, “failure to act” on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea “continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.”

“Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain,” agreed Socolow. “Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defense, as well as insufficient transparency, planning, and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support a continuing drawdown.”

“The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals,” Socolow warned. “Such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups.”

There are positive signs amidst the challenges, particularly the engagement of people in determining their own future, the group emphasized.

“The Science and Security Board is heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, political protests in Russia, and by the actions of ordinary citizens in Japan as they call for fair treatment and attention to their needs,” said Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Executive Director Kennette Benedict.

“Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential,” Benedict said. “For this reason, we ask other scientists and experts to join us in engaging ordinary citizens. Together, we can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders. Most importantly, we can demand answers and action.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.