More reports on: Environment

Climate change, N-threat push `Doomsday Clock' 3 minutes closer to Zero-hour

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23 January 2015

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) on Friday warned that ''the probability of global catastrophe is very high'' unless quick action is taken. It cited unchecked climate change and global nuclear weapons modernisation as the basis for the decision to move the minute hand of the historic `Doomsday Clock' forward two minutes.

The shift of the Doomsday Clock hands to three minutes to midnight is the first such adjustment to be made in three years by BAS and its board of sponsors that include 17 Nobel laureates.

The closer they set the clock to midnight, the closer the scientists believe the world is to global disaster.

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists subsequently created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using  the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

The Doomsday Clock is a universally-recognised symbolic clock face, representing a countdown to possible political-related global catastrophe (nuclear war or climate change) and is regarded as an indicator of the world's vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.

The opening paragraph of the statement from the Board says, ''In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.''

''In 2015, with the Clock hand moved forward to three minutes to midnight, the board feels compelled to add, with a sense of great urgency: 'The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon,'''  the statement warns.

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2012, when the Clock's minute hand was pushed ahead one minute from six to five minutes before midnight. 

Since its creation 67 years ago in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted only 18 times, ranging from two minutes before midnight in 1953 to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991.  The last time the Doomsday Clock was at three minutes to midnight was 1983, when ''US-Soviet relations were at their iciest,'' according to BAS.

''Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernization of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity. And world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe," said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, unveiling the change to the Doomsday Clock.

"These failures of leadership endanger every person on Earth.  Based on their observations, the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board find conditions in the world to be so threatening that they are moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight.  It is now 3 minutes to midnight.''

According to Sivan Kartha, a member of the Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and senior scientist, Stockholm Environment Institute, steps seen as bold in light of today's extremely daunting political opposition to climate action do not match the expectations of five years ago. The results are unsurprising;  global greenhouse gas emission rates are now 50 per cent higher than they were in 1990.

Kartha says, Emission rates have risen since 2000 by more than in the previous three decades combined. Investments have continued to pour into fossil fuel infrastructure at a rate that exceeds $1 trillion per year, with additional hundreds of billions of dollars in continued fossil fuel subsidies.

Sharon Squassoni, a member of the Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and director and senior fellow at the Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, ''Since the end of the Cold War, there has been cautious optimism about the ability of nuclear weapon states to keep the nuclear arms race in check and to walk back slowly from the precipice of nuclear destruction. 

"That optimism has essentially evaporated in the face of two trends: sweeping nuclear weapons modernization programs and a disarmament machinery that has ground to a halt. Although the United States and Russia no longer have the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons they had during the Cold War, the pace of reduction has slowed dramatically in recent years, well before the crisis in Crimea.  From 2009 to 2013, the Obama administration cut only 309 warheads from the stockpile.''

Progress on climate and nuclear weapons issues has been too limited in recent years, according to the Board.  And there is concern about the impact that even a ''limited'' nuclear weapons exchange would have both in terms of large-scale deaths and a further worsening of the climate:

The statement said, ''Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena in the past year, reflecting continued advancement of renewable energy technologies, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Absent a dramatic course correction, the countries of the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of this century to profoundly transform Earth's climate, harming millions upon millions of people and threatening many key ecological systems on which civilization relies.''

''At the same time, efforts to reduce world nuclear arsenals have stalled. The disarmament process has ground to a halt, with the United States and Russia embarking on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads - thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties - and other nuclear weapons holders joining in this expensive and extremely dangerous modernization craze... Even a so-called ''limited'' nuclear weapons exchange will produce massive casualties and severe effects on the global environment."

The statement from the Board includes the following recommended steps:

  • Take actions that would cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels sufficient to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
  • Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs.
  • Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results.
  • Deal now with the nuclear waste problem.

Richard Somerville, a member of the Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, said, ''Efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption.

Unless much greater emissions reductions occur very soon, the countries of the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of this century to profoundly transform the Earth's climate.

The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilization relies We call upon world leaders to take coordinated and rapid action to drastically reduce global emissions of heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide. We also urge the citizens of the world to demand action from their leaders. This threat looms over all of humanity. We all need to respond now, while there is still time.''

 
Doomsday Clock graph, 1947-2015. The lower the graph, the higher probability of technology-induced catastrophe  




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