In 1947, directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist (BAS) devised a metaphor for the world’s nearness to self-annihilation they called the “Doomsday Clock.”
Armageddon is symbolized by midnight on the Doomsday Clock, which was originally a reflection of likelihood of global nuclear war. In that respect, the fall of communism two decades ago seemed to usher in a new era of stability and peace; when the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, the clock jumped back to 17 minutes to midnight, its most optimistic reading ever. But in the years since, as arms reduction has fizzled and countries such as India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran have developed (or at least pursued) nuclear weapons, the Doomsday Clock has crept back toward that fateful hour.
But these days, it’s not all about nukes: In 2007, when scientists moved the clock from 11:53 to 11:55, they included for the first time the threat of climate change among their reasons for increased pessimism. In 2010, pleased with cooperation among nations to address global warming, the clock’s keepers moved it back by a minute. But this week’s announcement brings the Doomsday Clock to 11:55.
In announcing the move, Lawrence Krauss of the BAS said that the progress in 2010 has been squandered. “The provisional developments of 2 years ago have not been sustained,” he said, “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. … 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.”
An article in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out the irony of losing a minute on the Doomsday Clock during a time of such pro-democracy movements as the Arab Spring.
The Monitor reported that some people greeted the news with a shrug, perhaps commenting that they were surprised the Doomsday Clock idea was even still around. But others are glad to see the BAS recognizing that that climate issues are as much cause for concern today as nuclear armagaddon was in the 1950s. Brian Merchant, writing at Treehugger.com, opined that, compared to nuclear war, “Climate change is arguably now the greater, slow-burning threat to humanity. It’s precisely because fewer people seem scared of its advance. … Each year we break new emissions records, and the world remains on course for an 11?F temperature rise by the end of the century. That will change life as we know it.”