Doomsday Clock Ticks Nearer to Midnight

Since 1947 the magazine Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has featured on its cover a “Doomsday Clock” representing the perceived level of danger to human civilization from atomic weapons. Long an advocate of nuclear disarmament, the Bulletin used the clock to demonstrate the danger of nuclear war. Today the Clock was moved two minutes closer to Doom — and for the first time the magazine has included climate change as a threat to humanity on a plane equal to that of nuclear devastation.

Today’s move recognizes the continued existence of nuclear danger — noting the possession of atomic weapons by Pakistan and North Korea and the desire of Iran to join the nuclear “club” — but also includes the Bulletin’s recognition of the danger of climate change. From a timeline on their web site showing the complete history of the Clock, and recording today’s threat escalation, they state:

Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.

With the end of the Cold War the minute hand of the clock, which had been as close as two minutes to Midnight at one time in the 1970s, began to back away from the Armageddon that would be represented by the stroke of 12, and by 1991 it stood at 19 minutes. Since then, global uncertainties and the disasters of 9/11 started the minute hand moving forward again.

Here is a file photograph of the Doomsday Clock from 1998 when it was set forward to nine minutes to 12 after India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. Today, the minute hand is being moved to five minutes to midnight — the nearest since 1984 when U.S. and Soviet relations were at a low point and the Clock ticked to four minutes to Doom. The Clock has only been nearer than its present position three other times: In 1981 (four minutes), 1953 (two minutes) and 1949 (three minutes).

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Never before in the Clock’s 59 year history has climate change been considered along with nuclear holocaust as a threat to human existence. Now, in the judgment of the Bulletin directors, it has become a clear and present danger that deserves equal consideration alongside the nuclear threat. Here is a excerpt from the news release issued by the Bulletin concerning the new threat level (boldface added for emphasis):

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock on January 17, 2007, from 7 to 5 minutes to midnight.

BAS announced the Clock change at an unprecedented joint news conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, and the Royal Society in London. In a statement supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, the BAS Board focused on two major sources of catastrophe: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

Fourteen leading scientists and security experts writing in the January-February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explore further the potential for catastrophic damage from human-made technologies…

By moving the hand of the Clock closer to midnight—the figurative end of civilization—the BAS Board is drawing attention to the increasing dangers from the spread of nuclear weapons in a world of violent conflict, and to the catastrophic harm from climate change that is unfolding.

The release includes poignant quotes from leading scientists who took part in the decision to move the clock ahead and who expressed their fears at announcement ceremonies in London and Washington. Here is a sampling:

Stephen Hawking, BAS Sponsor, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of the Royal Society, said: “As scientists, we understand the dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth. As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.”

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin, said: “As we stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age and at the onset of unprecedented climate change, our way of thinking about the uses and control of technologies must change to prevent unspeakable destruction and future human suffering.”

Sir Martin Rees, president of The Royal Society, professor of cosmology and astrophysics, master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, and BAS Sponsor said: “Nuclear weapons still pose the most catastrophic and immediate threat to humanity, but climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences also have the potential to end civilization as we know it.

Clearly, climate change is emerging as perhaps the No. 1 threat to human existence, and leading scientists are stepping forward to speak out against the status quo. Sadly, in the minds of most people climate change is a vague and perhaps unreal threat. That is especially true here in the U.S. where efforts bankrolled by ExxonMobil and others have succeeded in muddying the waters.

I recently saw a statement by a conservative blogger who reported with disdain that a survey in Europe showed that most people there ranked climate change as a greater threat than radical Islamic jihad. She was in denial that any such thing could be reasonable and cast ridicule on the Europeans. I would be the last to deny that Islamic war against non-Muslims is an incredibly dire threat — but climate change is rapidly developing as an equally or possibly even more grave concern. We are actually facing two threats, and they are joined at the hip by overlapping issues such as globalization, Western dependence on Mideast oil, resource depletion, overpopulation, growing food shortages, and runaway industrial development in places such as China that are determined to duplicate the 20th Century achievements of the West.

Star Phoenix Base is pleased to see the issues of climate change coming to the forefront of public discussion. Now perhaps we will see some action from our national leaders. This is of doubt, however, for to quote the always acid-tongued Mark Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” No doubt true when he said it; likely just as true today, at least for the vast majority of our legislators when it comes to the burning issue of climate change.

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