Resets 'Doomsday Clock'
By Molly Bentley
18 November, 2006
assessing the dangers posed to civilisation have added climate change
to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as the greatest threats to humankind.
As a result, the group has
moved the minute hand on its famous "Doomsday Clock" two minutes
closer to midnight.
The concept timepiece, devised
by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, now stands at five minutes
to the hour.
The clock was first featured
by the magazine 60 years ago, shortly after the US dropped its A-bombs
Not since the darkest days
of the Cold War has the Bulletin, which covers global security issues,
felt the need to place the minute hand so close to midnight.
The decision to move it came
after BAS directors and affiliated scientists held discussions to reassess
the idea of doomsday and what posed the most grievous threats to civilisation.
Growing global nuclear instability
has led humanity to the brink of a "Second Nuclear Age," the
group concluded, and the threat posed by climate change is second only
to that posed by nuclear weapons.
"When we think about
what technologies besides nuclear weapons could produce such devastation
to the planet, we quickly came to carbon-emitting technologies,"
said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Chicago-based BAS.
The announcement was made
at simultaneous events held by the magazine in London and in Washington
DC that included remarks from the English Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin
Rees, and physicist Stephen Hawking.
impacts on the biosphere, climate and oceans are unprecedented,"
said Sir Martin.
driven threats - 'threats without enemies' - should loom as large in
the political perspective as did the East/West political divide during
the Cold War era."
A number of alarming nuclear
trends led to a statement by the Bulletin that "the world has not
faced such perilous choices" since the atomic bombs dropped on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The worries include Iran's
nuclear ambitions, North Korea's detonation of an atomic bomb, the presence
of 26,000 launch-ready weapons by America and Russia, and the inability
to secure and halt the international trafficking of nuclear materials
such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
The Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, founded by former Manhattan Project physicists, has campaigned
for nuclear disarmament since 1947.
Its board periodically reviews
issues of global security and challenges to humanity, not solely those
posed by nuclear technology, although most have had a technological
This is the first time it has included climate change as an explicit
threat to the future of civilisation.
A less immediate threat,
but included in the assessment, is the one posed by emerging life science
technologies, such as synthetic biology and genetic modification.
While the harm done to the
planet by carbon-emitting manufacturing technologies and automobiles
was more gradual than a nuclear explosion, nonetheless, it could also
be catastrophic to life as we know it and "irremediable",
the board said.
It cited in support the conclusions
of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its broad
assessment is that the warning over the last few decades is attributable
to human activities, and that its consequences are observable in such
events as the melting of Arctic ice.
In the years ahead, rising
sea levels, heat waves, desertification, along with new disease outbreaks
and wars over arable land and water, would mean climate change could
bring widespread destruction, the board said.
It also warned against the
use of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.
While the technology had
the potential to alleviate the climate warming effects of burning coal,
its development raised the spectre that nuclear materials would be available
for nefarious ends as well, the board argued.
Some scientists - even climate
scientists - may not support the comparison of global warming to the
catastrophe that would follow a nuclear engagement.
"Whether it's a threat
of the same magnitude or slightly less or greater is beside the point,"
said Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist from Princeton University,
"The important point
is that this organisation, which for 60 years has been monitoring and
warning us about the nuclear threat, now recognises climate change as
a threat that deserves the same level of attention," he said.
Both the nuclear menace and
a runaway greenhouse effect were the result of technology whose control
had slipped from humans' grasp, the BAS directors said. But it was also
within our power to pull them back under control, they added.
"We haven't figured
out how to do that yet, but the potential is within our institutions
and our imaginations," said Dr Benedict.
Dr Oppenheimer agrees that
people should not despair. After all, he said, for a long time the world
took the nuclear threat seriously and reduced the numbers of weapons.
"I'm optimistic that
we can address climate change," he said. "We've dealt with
such problems before, and we can do it again."
Over the past 60 years, the
Doomsday clock has now moved backwards and forwards 18 times. It advanced
to two minutes before midnight - its closest proximity to doom - in
1953 after the United States and the Soviet Union detonated hydrogen
Its keepers last moved the
clock's hand in 2002 after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty and amid alarm about the acquisition of nuclear weapons
and materials by terrorists.
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