Doomsday Clock moves one minute closer to midnight

Wen Huang
News Officer for Law, Policy and EconomicsUniversity Communications

Faced with inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change, the University of Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Jan. 10 that it has moved the hands of its famous “Doomsday Clock” to five minutes to midnight.

The last time the Doomsday Clock moved was in January 2010, when it was pushed back one minute, from five to six minutes before midnight.   

In a formal statement issued at the announcement, the Bulletin noted: “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.”

Commenting on the Doomsday Clock announcement, Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the BAS Board of Sponsors and professor at Arizona State University, said: “Unfortunately, Einstein’s statement in 1946 that ‘everything has changed, save the way we think,’ remains true. …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.”

Allison Macfarlane, chair, BAS Science and Security Board, and associate professor at George Mason University, added: “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.” 

The Jan. 10 announcement followed an international symposium held the previous day in Washington, D.C. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with participation from the Sponsors, reviewed the implications of recent events (most notably, the nuclear disaster in March 2011 near Fukushima, Japan), and trends for the future of humanity with input from other experts on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, climate change and biosecurity.

Kennette Benedict, executive director, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “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.”          

Now housed at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. They 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 decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin's Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

For a full copy of the BAS statement about the Doomsday Clock, go to http://www.thebulletin.org.

— Adapted from a news release distributed by the Hastings Group