Climate Change, Nuclear Threats Prompt Change To Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock from seven to five minutes to midnight, stating that the decision was based on dangers posed by climate change and nuclear weapons.

BAS stated that the decision by its board of directors was made in consultation with the bulletin's board of sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. BAS announced the clock change on Jan. 17 at a joint news conference held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., 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, 2,000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change. In articles by 14 leading scientists and security experts writing in the January-February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the potential for catastrophic damage from human-made technologies is explored further.

Created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted only 17 times prior to Jan. 17, most recently in February 2002 after the events of 9/11.

By moving the hand of the clock closer to midnight -- the figurative end of civilization -- the BAS board of directors 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 BAS statement explains: "We stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth."

The BAS statement continues: "The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause irremediable harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival."

Stephen Hawking, a 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."

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were deeply concerned about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. In 1947 the bulletin introduced its clock to convey the perils posed by nuclear weapons through a simple design. The Doomsday Clock evoked both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero). In 1949, bulletin leaders realized that movement of the minute hand would signal the organization's assessment of world events. 

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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