A Minute Closer to Doomsday


For the 20th time in the last 65 years, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has readjusted the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock, which it has maintained since 1947. This clock is the symbol of how close the world is to a global disaster, especially nuclear Armageddon, since it reflects the scale and dimension of dangers facing the world as a result of human actions in nuclear and environmental dimensions.

The original purpose of the clock was to reflect only nuclear dangers, but in 2007 the criteria was adjusted to include the risks confronting mankind from climate change. The closest mankind has ever been to disaster is two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the United States and Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear devices, just nine months apart from one another. The farthest it has ever been from midnight is 17 minutes away, at the end of the Cold War when the danger of nuclear war was largely presumed to have faded.

Since 2010, the Bulletin had maintained the hand at 6 minutes to midnight owing to a general shift in mood toward the reduction of nuclear arsenals in the run up to the NPT Review Conference. However, much of that momentum has since faded, and little progress has been made on arms control or nuclear confidence building. Instead, the news has been dominated by the inability of the U.S. and Russia to find common ground on ballistic missile defense, the lack of nuclear transparency from China, the growing dangers posed by an unstable Pakistan, and concerns over nuclear safety after the nuclear incident at Fukushima last March.   

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In light of all this, it’s hardly surprising that the justification for moving the clock up by a minute is based on the assessment that “world leaders” have failed to realize the promise of addressing global threats.  Even on climate change, the Board concluded that the global community was fast moving towards “a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.”

The adjustment of the hand on the Doomsday Clock is meant to draw attention to the dangers that lie in accepting the status quo, and this action can be translated into something meaningful, or simply disregarded  by watching governments.

The issues of nuclear energy, proliferation and disarmament are more closely interlinked to one another – and to climate change – than we have acknowledged in the past. Actions in one dimension have intended and unintended consequences for others. It’s time that the whole be viewed more holistically if we wish to see the hand of the Doomsday Clock shifted backwards, and significantly so. 

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