Five minutes to midnight

Five minutes to midnight

At a press conference in Washington today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it is moving its famous "Doomsday Clock," which measures how close the world is to global catastrophe, one minute closer to midnight. The clock now stands at five minutes to midnight. It was moved back to six minutes in 2010 in a surge of — apparently unwarranted– optimism about the Obama administration’s nuclear disarmament agenda and global climate change talks. This year’s move was prompted by what the BAS sees as a lack of progress on both those issues. 

Jayantha Dhanapala, a member of the BAS board and a former U.N. under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, said at today’s even that "the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear and leadership is failing." He continued: 

The ratification…of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States reversed the previous drift in U.S.-Russia nuclear relations. However, failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Ira, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea… continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.

The stalling of the Obama administration’s non-proliferation agenda was one of FP’s 2011 Stories You Missed.

In recent years the BAS has also been increasingly looking at climate change. And according to George Mason Professor and BAS Science and Security Board Member, "The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in earth’s atmosphere."

The meltdown at Fukushima was clearly the big story of the year, but the board members — perhaps reflecting the group’s double focus on nonproliferation and climate change — seemed divided about its ramifications. While the post-Fukushima backlash against nuclear power could reduce proliferation risks, board member Lawrence Krauss noted, it could also increase reliance on environmentally dangerous fossil fuels. 

The closest the clock has ever gotten to midnight was 2 minutes in 1953, following the U.S. decision to develop the hydrogen bomb. It was as high as 17 minutes in 1991 following the end of the Cold War. FP’s resident optimist Charles Kenny skeptically noted on Twitter, "Oh, come on. 2 mins closer than 1980? Imminence of End Times closer than height of cold war? Rubbish."

He has a point, though I think it’s clear that the BAS judges its doomsday risk a bit differently today than it does during the Cold War. The focus is less on superpowers launching a nuclear war — a thankfully remote possibility — than terrorists acquiring nuclear material, or the world hitting the worst end of the IPCC projections. 

While the BAS claims to avoid playing politics or taking a U.S.-centric approach, it’s hard not to read today’s announcement as an expression of disappointment that the Obama administration has lived up to expectations on climate change and nonproliferation. I’d say that’s probably a better frame to use for examining the results than actually comparing today’s risk of nuclear war to 1962.

It does seem though, that by expanding its focus to include climate change, the metaphorical power of the doomsday clock has been diluted somewhat. We’re not waiting for a Hiroshima-like bang when global warming becomes a reality, but a slow process during which its effects are increasingly felt. In other words — unlike nuclear war — when we hit climate midnight, how will we know it?