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Doomsday Clock Now Reads Five Minutes To Midnight

Doomsday Clock Now Reads Five Minutes To Midnight
1/19/2012 2:00 PM ET

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on January 10 announced pushing forward the Doomsday Clock by 1 minute, thus indicating that humanity is now five "minutes" from the "midnight" of global disaster, compared to the prior 6 minutes.

This latest revision reflects that nations are not proactively seeking to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons or address the threats of regional nuclear warfare. Safe use of nuclear power is another ill-handled issue, while the lack of consensus in tackling global climate change is also a worry.

Explaining its decision, the Board of Directors of the Bulletin said that "key recommendations" such as the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the U.S. and China and the implementation of "multinational management" of the civilian nuclear energy fuel cycle had not been followed.

Countries were also culpable, according to the Bulletin, of not adopting emissions control measures, thus rendering climate change agreements ineffective. An inefficacy was also seen in the functioning of the International Atomic Energy Agency as an overseer of nuclear technology development and transfer.

The clock may be seen as a symbolic representation of the euphemistic greater picture - a way of providing context to technological progress in fields where the risk/reward balance is not easy to define.

Focusing mainly on weapons, with climate change and bio-security being recent additions to the list of concerns, the Bulletin takes on "the burden of dissemination," bridging the gap between the developers of technology and the general public that reaps the reward - or suffers the impact of - that same technology.

British writer Alan Moore employed the metaphor of the Doomsday Clock in his graphic novel Watchmen, as a measure of how individual actions impact humanity as a whole.

When the Doomsday Clock was first set up in 1947, at seven minutes to midnight, its primary concerns were the impact of the Cold War on the planet as a whole, and subsequent adjustments were based on periodic evaluations of the threats that originally defined that chapter of human history.

The beginning of the Arms Race, historically associated with the former Soviet Union's atomic test in 1949, led to both the U.S. and the Soviet Union testing hydrogen bombs by 1953, at which time the clock showed 2 minutes to midnight. Luckily for humanity, this low ebb has thus far not been repeated.

But there have been swings since then, with the signing of various nuclear arms reduction treaties encouraging the scientists' optimism, most notably at two ten-year intervals following the nadir of 1953 - in 1963 and in 1973 the clock had been pushed back to as much as 12 minutes to midnight.

Then followed a decade that saw the first South Asian nation - India - test a nuclear device, and also wherein the U.S. and the Soviet Union behaved, to quote the Bulletin, like "nucleoholics" inebriated with the power of nuclear weapons. A 1984 revision, as if to mirror George Orwell's fictional "prediction" of a bleak future, put the clock at 3 minutes to midnight, as U.S.-Soviet relations reached their "iciest point" in decades.

From the vantage point of historical retrospective, this was the proverbial darkest hour just before the dawn that was ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, with it, the removal of the so-called "the Iron Curtain".

In 1991, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the clock at 17 minutes to midnight, with the words "The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away." This "illusion" was redrawn a mere 7 years later with successive nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. Further exacerbation followed as, following the terrorist attacks of "9/11," scientists saw another potential problem in nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militant groups.

In 2007, scientists recognized the "dire challenge" posed by global climatic change - the first time that something other than a weapon impacted their calculations. With this combining with North Korea's nuclear test in 2006 and the ominous speculation that Iran was developing nuclear technology, the clock moved nearest to midnight since 1991 at 5 minutes till.

A modest mitigation was noted at the most recent revision before this year's: in 2010, the Bulletin felt confident in putting humanity at 6 minutes to midnight partially due to the U.S. and Russia considering further cuts in nuclear weapons volumes. The United Nations Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen in 2009 also lent the hope that nations would make strides in controlling the fallout of climate change, most crucially by working to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Centigrade.

In his comments on the 2012 adjustment to the clock, co-chair of BAS's Board of Sponsors Lawrence Krauss said "Unfortunately, Einstein's statement in 1946 that 'everything has changed, save the way we think,' remains true. The provisional developments of 2 years ago have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007."

He added, "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."

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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