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‘Doomsday Clock’ now just 2 minutes away from midnight, and catastrophe

The clock – which serves as a metaphor for how close humanity is to destroying the planet – was moved forward by 30 seconds, to as near as it has ever been to the hour of the apocalypse.

world Updated: Jan 26, 2018 20:12 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Doomsday clock,Nuclear war,Trump
Members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists take their seats after moving their Doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to the end of the world, on January 25, 2018 in Washington, DC. (AFP)

The symbolic Doomsday Clock, which represents concerns about humanity destroying the planet, was advanced by 30 seconds to two minutes before midnight because of looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which announced the change on Thursday, cited the “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions” of North Korea and the US, nuclear tensions between the US and Russia, tensions in the South China Sea, the build-up of the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan, and uncertainty over the Iran nuclear deal for its decision.

The clock – which serves as a metaphor for how close humanity is to destroying the earth – is now the nearest it has been to the hour of the apocalypse since 1953. The last time the clock was at two minutes to midnight, which represents global catastrophe, was the era when the US and Russia tested hydrogen bombs for the first time.

“In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago – and as dangerous as it has been since World War 2,” said a statement by the group of intellectuals from international affairs, science, environment and security.

The failure to make a breakthrough on the Korean peninsula was unsurprising in view of the “downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un”, the statement said.

“In South Asia, Pakistan and India have continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons,” it added.

“In this year’s discussions, nuclear issues took center stage once again,” Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, told reporters. She described 2017 as “perilous and chaotic,” a year in which “we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations”.

She mentioned the series of tests by North Korea, an enhanced commitment to nuclear weapons in China, Pakistan and India and the “unpredictability” embodied by Trump in tweets and statements.

Since the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has reset its minute hand 23 times since then, ranging from two minutes to midnight in 1953 to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991. Last year, it was moved from three minutes before midnight to two-and-a-half minutes.

In 1998, it was moved to nine minutes to midnight after India and Pakistan conducted nuclear weapons tests.

Besides nuclear weapons, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said the danger from climate change “may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now”. Global carbon dioxide emissions have not yet shown a sustained decline that must occur if greater warming is to be avoided. Nations will have to significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable.

Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, said carbon dioxide has increased sixfold since 1953 and the environment has warmed about one degree Centigrade.

Last year saw extreme heat around the world, “cataclysmic damage” from hurricanes in the Caribbean, and devastating wildfires.

“And the Arctic ice cap, which we rely on to reflect sunlight and keep the earth’s temperature stable, reached its smallest ever winter maximum,” he said.

The group also noted technological change that is disrupting democracies around the world as “states seek and exploit opportunities to use information technologies as weapons, among them internet-based deception campaigns aimed at undermining elections and popular confidence in institutions essential to free thought and global security”.

Robert Rosner, professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago, singled out the Trump administration for its “inconsistency”, which he said worsens nuclear risks and “constitutes a major challenge for deterrence... and global stability”.

“Our allies and adversaries alike are being forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from a US administration weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals and unable to develop, coordinate and clearly communicate a coherent foreign much less nuclear policy,” Rossner told a news briefing.

He said the US administration – which is set to unveil its nuclear policy next week – “appears likely to increase the types and roles of nuclear weapons in US defence plans and to lower the threshold for nuclear use”.

Sharon Squassoni, professor of practice at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at The George Washington University, said, “For the first time in many years…no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiation are under way.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded in 1945 by scientists who worked on the first nuclear weapons developed by the US, engages science leaders, policy-makers and the public on nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies.

First Published: Jan 26, 2018 08:28 IST