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Going Green

Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight

by Adrian Bishop 11 Jan 2012
Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight

Five minutes before midnight via Shutterstock

The world is nearer oblivion, say atomic scientists, after moving the Doomsday clock one minute closer to midnight. Too little action on cutting nuclear weapons and reducing climate change, along with the increased threat of wars, caused the time on the clock to be changed to five minutes to midnight, announces the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS).

A year ago, with some progress made in reducing the threat of a global catastrophe the time was moved back from five to six minutes before midnight.

BAS says in a statement, "It is five minutes to midnight. Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007."

Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the BAS Board of Sponsors and holder of many other prominent positions in eminent science bodies, says, "Unfortunately, Einstein's statement in 1946 that 'everything has changed, save the way we think,' remains true.

"The provisional developments of two years ago have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007.

"Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leaders are failing to change business as usual.

"Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock.

"As we see it, 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, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions."

Allison Macfarlane, chair of the BAS Science and Security Board, member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on American's Nuclear Future, and associate professor at George Mason University, in Virginia, says, "The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth's atmosphere.

"The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification.

"Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy - and emissions for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect. Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late."

Jayantha Dhanapala, member of the BAS Board of Sponsors, former United Nations under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs and ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States, adds, "Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation, and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing.

"The ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations. However, failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.

"The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world's inhabitants several times over."

Robert Socolow, a member of the Science and Security Board, professor, of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-principal investigator, Carbon Mitigation Initiative, at Princeton University, USA, says, "Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain.

Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defence, as well as insufficient transparency, planning, and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support a continuing drawdown. The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

"While governments claim they are only ensuring the safety of their warheads through replacement of bomb components and launch systems, as the deliberate process of arms reduction proceeds, such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups."

But there is some light on the horizon. Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says, "The Science and Security Board is heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, political protests in Russia, and by the actions of ordinary citizens in Japan as they call for fair treatment and attention to their needs. "Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential.

"For this reason, we ask other scientists and experts to join us in engaging ordinary citizens. Together, we can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders. Most importantly, we can demand answers and action."

BAS says other matters that need urgent attention include:

* Ratifying of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and progress on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty by America and China

* Introducing multinational management of the non-military nuclear energy fuel cycle with strict standards for safety, security, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, including stopping reprocessing for plutonium separation

* Increasing the International Atomic Energy Agency's capacity to oversee nuclear materials, technology development, and its transfer

* Agreeing to cut carbon dioxide emissions using tax incentives, harmonized domestic regulation and practice

* Closing older coal plants and requiring new plants to capture and store the carbon dioxide produced

* Investing in solar and wind power and energy storage technologies and sharing the knowledge throughout the world

The decision to move the clock was made after an international symposium held in Washington, D.C, USA.

The BAS was founded in 1945 by scientists from the University of Chicago who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project.

They created the Doomsday Clock in 1947, with midnight representing the apocalypse and the countdown to zero illustrating the threat to humanity and the planet.

The decision to move the time was made by the BAS Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

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