Doomsday Clock back to five of midnight

On Jan. 10, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) announced that it has moved the hands of its famous “Doomsday Clock” to five minutes to midnight. The last time the Doomsday Clock moved was in January 2010, when it was pushed back one minute from five to six minutes before midnight. In a statement, BAS noted: “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.” (See Doomsday Clock Timeline.)

Commenting on the announcement, Lawrence Krauss, co-chair, BAS Board of Sponsors and director of the New Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, said: “Unfortunately, Einstein’s statement in 1946 that ‘everything has changed, save the way we think,’ remains true. The provisional developments of two years ago have not been sustained… Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leads are failing to change business as usual. Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock. As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21stcentury is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people toloss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”

Allison Macfarlane, chair of the BAS Science and Security Board and member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, said: “The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere. 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. 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. Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.”

Jayantha Dhanapala, member of the BAS Board of Sponsors and former United Nations undersecretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, said: “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. The ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations. However, failure to act on the Comprehensive 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. The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world’s inhabitants several times over.”

Robert Socolow, member of the Science and Security Board, and co-principal investigator at Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, said: “Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain. 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. While governments claim they are only ensuring the safety of their warheads through replacement of bomb components and launch systems, as the deliberate process of arms reduction proceeds, such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups.”

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists executive director Kennette Benedict said: “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. 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. 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.” (BAS press release, Jan. 10)

While the 2010 announcement of the move from five to six minutes to midnight mentioned Barack Obama’s presidency as a hopeful sign, the new press release announcing the move from six to five does not invoke the president’s name. However, it comes days after the White House released a new “defense strategic guidance” document that calls for shifting US forces to the Asia-Pacific theater to contain regional Chinese ambitions, and broaches only tentative steps towards reducing the US nuclear arsenal.

See our last posts on the nuclear threat, the climate crisis and the Doomsday Clock.