Three Minutes to Midnight is Too Close

News at the Speed of the Internet© - Thunder Bay's NetNewsLedger
News at the Speed of the Internet© - Thunder Bay's NetNewsLedger

THUNDER BAY – CLIMATE – The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board announced today that the minute hand of its closely watched Doomsday Clock will remain at three minutes to midnight, since recent progress in the Iran nuclear agreement and the Parisclimate 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.

The decision about the time reflected on the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsScience and Security Board in conjunction with the Board of Sponsors, which includes 16 Nobel Laureates.  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.

In addition to a news event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the Doomsday Clock also was unveiled by a panel at Stanford University in California featuring: Jerry Brown, Governor of the State of CaliforniaGeorge P. Shultz, Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford distinguished fellow, Hoover Institution, and former U.S. Secretary of State; and William J. Perry, senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense.

While recognizing the important progress represented by 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 StatesRussia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernize 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 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 in 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 United States, which stands alone in the world in failing to acknowledge even that human-caused climate change is a problem.”

The statement 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 and publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “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, Bulletin Board of Sponsors, foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics departments, and director, Origins Project, Arizona State University, said: “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.”

Thomas R. Pickering, member, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian FederationIndiaIsraelEl SalvadorNigeria, and Jordan, said: “While the historic Iran nuclear agreement was an important step forward, we live in a world where nuclear tensions involving the United StatesRussiaNorth Korea and other nations continue at a heightened level.   If not for the Iran nuclear agreement, we would have to conclude that, on balance, tensions are even higher today than they were in 2015 when the Doomsday Clock was set to just three minutes to midnight.” 

Sharon Squassoni, member, Bulletin Science and Security Board, senior fellow and director, Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, said: North Korea’srecent 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, member, Bulletin Science and Security Board, senior scientist and climate change expert, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and co-leader of the SEI research theme “Reducing Climate Risk,” said:  “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.”

What steps need to be taken?  The Bulletin statement accompanying the Doomsday Cock announcement identifies the following as the most urgently needed:

  • Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs.
  • Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results.
  • Engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks.
  • 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.
  • Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists subsequently created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin‘s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 16 Nobel Laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences. Since its creation in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted only 21 times, ranging from two minutes before midnight in 1953 to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991.

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