28th January 2016
Doomsday Clock stays at three minutes to midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board has announced that their closely monitored "Doomsday Clock" will remain at three minutes to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face, representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe (e.g. nuclear war or climate change). It has been maintained since 1947 by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. The closer they set the Clock to midnight, the closer the scientists believe the world is to global disaster.
The position of the Clock hands in the past has ranged from two minutes to midnight in 1953 (after the U.S. began testing hydrogen bombs, which was followed by Soviet tests shortly after), to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 (when the Cold War ended and deep cuts were made to nuclear arsenals).
Last year, the Clock hands were moved from five to three minutes to midnight, with the Bulletin stating: "Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth."
This week, it was announced that the Doomsday Clock will remain at three minutes to midnight, since recent progress in the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord "constitute only small bright spots in a darker world situation full of potential for catastrophe."
The statement accompanying the Doomsday Clock decision opens with the following words: "Three minutes (to midnight) is too close. Far too close. We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016: That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries."
While recognising the important progress of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, the Bulletin cautions that these positive steps have been offset in large part by foreboding developments: "Even as the Iran agreement was hammered out, tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with Turkey, a NATO member, shooting down a Russian warplane involved in Syria, the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia repositioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them. Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to most existing nuclear arms control agreements, but the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernise their nuclear arsenals, suggesting that they plan to keep and maintain the readiness of their nuclear weapons for decades, at least — despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament."
On the climate front, the Bulletin statement points out: "Promising though it may be, the Paris climate agreement came toward the end of Earth's warmest year on record, with the increase in global temperature over pre-industrial levels surpassing one degree Celsius."
Other more positive climate developments cited in the statement include the Papal encyclical related to climate change, the movement among investors toward divestment of fossil fuels, new advances in sustainable energy systems, more climate-friendly governments in Canada and Australia. However, the statement cautions that even these developments must be seen "against the steady backtracking of the United Kingdom's present government on climate policies and the continued intransigence of the Republican Party in the U.S., which stands alone in the world in failing to acknowledge even that human-caused climate change is a problem."
The Bulletin also reflects concerns about "the nuclear power vacuum" around the globe: "The international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation challenges that large-scale nuclear expansion poses ... Because of such problems, in the United States and in other countries, nuclear power's attractiveness as an alternative to fossil fuels has decreased, despite the clear need for carbon-emissions-free energy in the age of climate change."
Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin, comments: "Last year, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board moved the Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, noting: 'The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.' That probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act — immediately."
Lawrence Krauss, chair of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors: "Developments have been mixed since we moved the clock forward a year ago. In spite of some positive news, the major challenges the Bulletin laid out for governments then have not been addressed, even as the overall global challenges we need to face become more urgent. The clock reflects our estimate that the world is as close to the brink as it was in 1983 when US-Russian tensions were at their iciest in decades."
Sharon Squassoni, Bulletin Science and Security Board member, and a director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, said: "North Korea's recent nuclear test illustrates the very real danger of life in a proliferated world. Nuclear proliferation isn't a potential threat — we still have few controls over the kinds of capabilities that Iran succeeded in acquiring. In addition, regional tensions and conflict increase the risk of theft or use of these weapons."
Sivan Kartha, Bulletin Science and Security Board member, senior scientist and climate change expert, states: "The voluntary pledges made in Paris to limit greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to the task of averting drastic climate change. These incremental steps must somehow evolve into the fundamental change in world energy systems needed if climate change is to ultimately be arrested."
So, what steps need to be taken?
The Bulletin statement accompanying the Doomsday Clock announcement identifies the following as the most urgently needed:
• Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernisation programs.
• Re-energise the disarmament process, with a focus on results.
• Engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks.
• Follow up on the Paris accord with actions to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fulfil the global agreement to keep warming below 2°C.
• Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem.
• Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.