Scientists Push "Doomsday Clock" Forward

The people responsible for estimating the danger facing the world have today moved the hands of the so-called Doomsday Clock to a symbolic 5 minutes to midnight, an action that dramatically emphasizes just how menacing human activity has become. For the last six decades, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has tried to alert the public to dangers that threaten global catastrophes. This time, the scientists cite the "threat of a second nuclear age and the expected consequences of climate change" as reasons to move the clock 2 minutes closer to midnight—the figurative end of civilization. The scientists had previously set the Doomsday Clock up to 7 minutes to midnight 5 years ago in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

The BAS announcement came at an unprecedented joint news conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington and the Royal Society in London. In a statement supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, the BAS Board focused on two major sources of catastrophe: the perils of 27 000 nuclear weapons, 2000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

The Doomsday Clock was created by BAS in 1947, in the wake of Cold War testing of nuclear weapons, and positioned at 7 minutes to midnight. Since then, it has been adjusted only 17 times prior to today's move. The closest it has been set to potential planetary catastrophe came in 1953, following the successful test of a hydrogen bomb by the U.S. It has been as far away as 17 minutes, set there in 1991 following the demise of the Soviet Union. The BAS announcement said its board of scientists had made the decision because of increasing dangers from the spread of nuclear weapons in a world of violent conflict, as well as the catastrophic harm from climate change that is unfolding.

BAS Sponsor, Stephen Hawking, a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the Royal Society, said from the London meeting: "As scientists, we understand the dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change."

In their statement, the BAS Board detailed a number of steps that, if taken immediately, could help to prevent future disaster. These included:

  • Reducing the launch readiness of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and completely removing nuclear weapons from the day-to-day operations of their militaries.
  • Reducing the number of nuclear weapons by dismantling, storing, and destroying more than 20 000 warheads over the next 10 years, as well as greatly increasing efforts to locate, store, and secure nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere.
  • Ending production of nuclear weapons material, including highly enriched uranium and plutonium—whether in military or civilian facilities.
  • Engaging in serious and candid discussion about the potential expansion of nuclear power worldwide.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, a BAS director and co-chair of the International Crisis Group, said: "Although our current situation is dire, we have the means today to successfully address these global problems. For example, through vigorous diplomacy and international agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency, we can negotiate and implement agreements that could protect us all from the most destructive technology on Earth—nuclear weapons."

While an upsurge in military conflict and increased proliferation of nuclear weapons, most notably signified by North Korea's recent test of an atomic weapon, were cited by BAS as cause for heightened alarm, the inclusion of potential disaster from climate change marked a first for the organization.

Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, and BAS Sponsor said: "Nuclear weapons still pose the most catastrophic and immediate threat to humanity, but climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences also have the potential to end civilization as we know it."

The Doomsday Clock is ticking toward a fearful future, according to the atomic scientists, unless humanity takes urgent measures to avoid its worst behavior. The fact that we have made no progress whatsoever—but have gone in just the opposite direction overall—after 60 years is a dire warning, indeed.

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