The mushroom cloud of the first test of a hydrogen bomb, “Ivy Mike,” as photographed on Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, in 1952. (U.S. Air Force via Reuters) By at least one measure, the world just got that much closer to apocalypse.
The Doomsday Clock, a figurative timepiece used as a barometer of humankind’s fate, was moved one minute closer to midnight on Tuesday, the first time it has been nudged forward since 2007. It is now 11:55, five minutes before the appointed hour.
The re-setting of the clock has become something of a gimmick in recent years, carried out by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group established to raise awareness about the perils of nuclear weaponry, and aimed at warning the public about various catastrophic dangers.
But the process involved in deciding the time is a deeply serious one, overseen by a venerable board of scientists, Nobel laureates and others and concluded with a symposium in Washington. The setting of the clock is no longer based only on the proliferation of nuclear arms, but also on threats such as climate change and biological weaponry.
In moving the clock ahead on Tuesday, the BAS cited the failure of world leaders to achieve significant progress on the reduction of nuclear weapons and in developing a comprehensive response to climate change. Just two years ago, following global talks on climate change in Copenhagen and international pledges to reduce nuclear stockpiles, the BAS moved the clock backward by a minute.
“Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leads are failing to change business as usual,” said Lawrence Krauss, co-chairman of the group’s board of sponsors.
“As we see it,” Krauss said, “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 … and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons — and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”
Since being unveiled in 1947, the clock has been reset 20 times. It came closest to doomsday in 1953, when the start of the nuclear arms race pushed its hand to two minutes to midnight, and moved the farthest away in 1991, when the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by the United States and the Soviet Union gave the world 17 minutes until midnight.
Despite the passage of various nonproliferation treaties, including the New START treaty under the Obama administration, the United States and Russia remain the chief reasons for concern when it comes to nuclear weaponry, according to Kennette Benedict, the BAS’s executive director. The United States and other major powers have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There has also been little progress on a treaty that would prohibit further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
“Overall, there’s just really no new thinking,” Benedict said.
BAS said not all news was bad over the past year. The group’s members say they were heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements and political protest in Russia.
Those developments, said Benedict, “indicated that people are waking up, and want to have a say in their future.”