Climate Change, Nuclear Woes Tick Doomsday Clock to Five Minutes Before Midnight

Alan Cleaver via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the world is officially veering a bit closer to apocalypse. In an announcement today, the scientists said they were moving the hand on the Doomsday Clock to the perilous position of five minutes before midnight. In 2010, scientists moved the clock backwards to six minutes before, signifying that the world had grown relatively safer, and risks of nuclear chaos were somewhat lower than they had been.

We questioned the move then, as climate change remained unaddressed by the global community. And evidently, the atomic scientists now agree. The BAS released the following statement today:

"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."

And climate change definitely played a role in inching the world closer to the end times. Also from today's statement: "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." Seems like a pretty good reason to sound the apocalyptic alarm bells to me.

Time Magazine's Ecocentric blog has some background on the origin of the clock:

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 and uses the imagery of a apocalypse—the clock striking midnight—to dramatize the risks of nuclear weapons and other catastrophic threats to humanity. The scientists behind the BAS noted that since 2007 the world had failed to significantly reduce the numbers of atomic weapons in the world, come to grips with climate change or ensure—in the aftermath of Fukushima—that nuclear power had been made less dangerous. With nuclear-armed North Korea going through a potentially destabilizing leadership transition and Iran coming under intense pressure to give up its own nuclear program, it’s hard to argue that the world is getting safer.
In preceding decades, nuclear holocaust has been perceived as the greatest threat to humanity as a whole in the popular imagination, which is why the Doomsday Clock has served as an ominous and powerful symbol over the years.

The closest humanity has ever gotten to the edge, according to the infamous indicator, was in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union both test nuclear bombs within nine months of each other. That landed us at two minutes to midnight, a paranoid time immortalized by the bombastic (and totally awesome) Iron Maiden tune above. The Cuban missile crisis, largely believed to be the point where the world came closest to nuclear disaster, occurred too quickly for the calamity to be reflected by the clock's hands.

Recently, however, bioterror and especially climate change have increasingly factored into the doomsday scenarios. And rightfully so. The thought of nuclear disaster may provoke an unparalleled degree of fear and panic – little is scarier than bombs that can wipe out millions in the blink of an eye, or radiation capable of warping and mutating our very cells.

But climate change is arguably now the greater, slow-burning threat to humanity. It's precisely because fewer people seem scared of its advance. After the Cold War, nuclear disarmament became a top priority, and international efforts were made to draw down nuclear arsenals. We're far from the goals of those efforts yet, but progress has been made.

Not so with climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, the only global agreement made to definitively reduce greenhouse gas emissions has impacted only Europe, Canada (which has since dropped out), and Japan – the U.S. refused to sign. Since then, international talks have been disastrous, and the world is emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than ever. 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.

The end of the world isn't exactly around the corner, but humanity is wading into increasingly dire straits as it continues to burn fossil fuels with reckless abandon. But since the impacts of climate change are more widely distributed, slower to make themselves clear, and perpetually far away-seeming, we humanfolk aren't as deeply terrified or outraged about the advance of global warming – even if we understand the basic phenomenon (as many in the U.S. do not).

Perhaps the added heft of the Doomsday Clock will help inject some urgency into the popular imagining of climate change – but don't count on it.

Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects | Nuclear Power

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