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'Doomsday Clock' moved forward. What has scientists worried?

Scientists say they moved the 'Doomsday Clock' a minute closer to midnight because nations are failing to sufficiently address nuclear proliferation, climate change, and other global threats.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2012


Citing “inaction” on renewed nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the urgent need to find sustainable sources of energy, a group of scientists has moved the “Doomsday Clock” a minute closer to midnight, saying nations are “failing to change business as usual.”

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It was a back-to-the-future moment for the “Doomsday Clock,” which just two years ago had been shifted backward to indicate global catastrophe was a bit less imminent.

Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, a group originally composed of University of Chicago scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, created the clock in 1947 to use the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) to convey the peril of nuclear weapons proliferation. Through the cold war it tolled, reminding nations of the silent danger.

Over the years, the hands of the clock have moved around a lot. In 1949, the clock was moved to three minutes to midnight when President Harry Truman told the American public that the Soviets had tested their first nuclear device – starting the arms race. By 1991, with the cold war officially over and the US and Russia slashing their nuclear arsenals, the clock retreated to 17 minutes to midnight.

Terrorism, tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, renewed friction between the US and Russia, North Korea's nuclear push, and other tensions had pushed the clock to five minutes to midnight by 2007.

But movement on nuclear arms talks, climate change, and other threats so buoyed the scientists two years ago that they ordered the so-called Doomsday Clock's minute hand to be pushed backward to six minutes before midnight.

Now, despite the Arab Spring and other pro-democracy movements around the world, including in Russia, lowering clouds have rolled back in for these scientists. So much so that on Tuesday the BAS directors announced they were moving the minute hand of the clock back to the 2007 position – 11:55.

“Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face,” the BAS directors said in a statement. “In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed.”

“Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock,” the group said in its statement. “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, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons.”

But in a year in which the Mayan calendar and other doomsday prophesies are getting more than their share of attention, how seriously, really should the public take this obviously subjective – and critics might argue meaningless – relic of the cold war?

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