News Risk Management 31 Jan 2018

Nuclear and climate risks push Doomsday clock just two minutes to midnight

31 Jan 2018

The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic instrument which shows the public when humanity is facing imminent annihilation, was advanced by 30 seconds last Thursday to two minutes to midnight, announced the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists citing growing nuclear risks and unchecked climate changes as the reasons.

The decision was taken by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which oversees the clock, in consultation with the Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel Laureates.

“In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II,” said the Board in a statement.

This is the closest to the symbolic point of annihilation that the Clock has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War, when the US and then Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons for the first time within a ten-month window.

Nuclear risks

“The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation," said the statement explaining last week's decision.

Fueling concerns about the potential of a nuclear holocaust are a range of US-Russian military entanglements, South China Sea tensions, escalating rhetoric between Pakistan and India, and uncertainty about continued U.S. support for the Iran nuclear deal. Contributing to the risks of nuclear and non-nuclear clashes around the globe are the rise of nation-state information technology and internet-based campaigns attacking infrastructure and free elections, according to the statement.

Climate change dangers

“On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now …. The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable, and so far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge.”

Also highlighted as an overarching global concern was the decline of US leadership and a related demise of diplomacy under the Trump Administration. “Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions or understand when US pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surrealistic sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening,” said the statement.

In January 2017, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand edged forward by 30 seconds, to two and half minutes before midnight. For the first time, the Doomsday Clock was influenced by statements from an incoming U.S. President, Donald Trump, regarding the proliferation and the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons, as well as statements made in opposition to U.S. commitments regarding climate change.   

#RewindtheDoomsdayClock” action

The “current, extremely dangerous state of world affairs” need not be permanent and can be managed, noted Professor Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Foundation Professor at School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, Arizona State University, and chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Board of Sponsors.

“This year, leaders and citizens of the world can move the Doomsday Clock and the world away from the metaphorical midnight of global catastrophe by taking common-sense action,” he said.

Professor Robert Rosner, William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago, and chair of the Bulletin said: “We hope this resetting of the Clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant—as an urgent warning of global danger. The time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past. The time for the citizens of the world to demand such action is now: #RewindtheDoomsdayClock.”

#RewindtheDoomsdayClock is a major message of the Bulletin for this year 2018, with the following action steps among those recommended:

  • US President Donald Trump should refrain from provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea, recognizing the impossibility of predicting North Korean reactions, with both governments opening multiple channels of communication;
  • The world community should pursue, as a short-term goal, the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests;
  • Governments around the world should redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they go well beyond the initial, inadequate pledges under the Paris Agreement; and
  • The international community should establish new protocols to discourage and penalize the misuse of information technology to undermine public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in the existence of objective reality itself.
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