Scientists Maintain a Global "Doomsday Clock" — and It's 3 Minutes to Midnight

Carey Wedler
January 26, 2016

(ANTIMEDIA) Washington, D.C. — An assembly of atomic scientists has decided to keep its decades-old Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight — the same as last year — a move that reflects stagnated progress on helping the environment and promoting nuclear disarmament. Though the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which operates the clock, opted not to move the minute hand closer to midnight, Doomsday, the group cautioned this was still not positive news.

Three minutes (to midnight) is too close. Far too close,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board said in a statement addressed to “Leaders and citizens of the world”:

“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.”

The Bulletin was created in 1945 by two scientists who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb. The clock was developed in 1947 to convey threats to humanity and the planet.” Today, those dangers include nuclear weapons, man-made climate change, and other technologies, including biotechnology and cyber-technology — especially in the hands of militaries. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has only moved the minute hand 21 times since 1947.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved to three minutes before midnight on January 22, 2015, marking the direst setting of the Clock since 1983, at the height of the Cold War,” the Bulletin explained on Tuesday, while announcing its decision to leave the clock at three minutes until midnight.

Though the decision noted positive developments like the nuclear deal with Iran, it also disclosed ongoing dismay at the actions of world powers and repeated how dismal the situation remains. According to the statement,

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,” the statement said.

Similarly, the Bulletin praised the world’s modicum of action on climate change, but cautioned against larger, looming problems. “Promising though it may be,” they wrote, “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.”

Sivan Kartha, a Bulletin Science and Security Board member and senior scientist and climate change expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), warned, “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.”

The Bulletin also expressed concern that “The international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation challenges that large-scale nuclear expansion poses,” arguing this has harmed the appeal of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The decision to keep the minutes hand of the Doomsday Clock at three minutes until midnight was revealed on Tuesday at a National Press Club meeting in Washington D.C. It was also unveiled by a panel at Stanford University, to an audience that included California Governor Jerry Brown, whose attendance was particularly ironic in light of his handling of the environmentally catastrophic Porter Ranch methane gas leak, which has emitted the equivalent of 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since October, sickening residents and forcing thousands of evacuations.

Though the time of the Doomsday Clock remains unchanged for now, the scientists offered several suggestions to reverse humanity’s current trajectory. They urged governments to scale back proposed spending on modernizing nuclear arsenals; “engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks”; “re-energize the disarmament process”“follow up on the Paris accord with actions that sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fulfill the Paris promise of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius”; “deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem”; and “create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.”

Of course, these suggestions serve as advice, not policy. As the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin, Rachel Branson, warned,

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.

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