Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) announced today that it is moving the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 5 minutes before midnight. This is 1 minute closer to the destruction of humanity than mankind was in 2010. Growing uncertainty surrounding global efforts to control nuclear weapons and the declining influence of scientific findings in policy making were among the reasons for the move, the group said at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

The Doomsday Clock was first created in 1947 by former Manhattan Project scientists to dramatize the threat of nuclear war; midnight denotes the moment when humans obliterate themselves. Since its inception, the clock's minute hand has swung from 2 minutes to midnight in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their respective hydrogen bombs, to17 minutes before midnight in 1991 at the end of the Cold War.

The decision to advance the minute hand was made by the BAS Science and Security Board, along with experts on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, climate change, and biosecurity from around the world. They met on 9 January in Washington, D.C., to discuss recent trends and events in nuclear, climate, and biotechnology fields.

"Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats we face," says board chair Allison Macfarlane, an environmental policy researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "In many cases, this trend has not continued, or, has been reversed."

Among the worrying trends cited by board members were the uncertainties created by the "unraveling of agreements that have been part of nuclear non-proliferation treaties," says Kennette Benedict, executive director of BAS. Although North Korea's weapons program has been a continuing concern, the group also was concerned about nuclear developments in India and Pakistan.

The group also worried that science is playing a smaller role in policy decisions. "The cross-cutting issue throughout the entire discussions, and through our decision today is the worrisome trend, notably in the United States, but in many other countries, to reject or diminish the significance of what science says," said Robert Socolow, who studies global carbon management and fossil-carbon sequestration at Princeton University, and is a member of the BAS Science and Security Board.

"I think there was a general judgment among us that we need the political leadership to affirm the primacy of science as a way of knowing in order to find our own way," Socolow says. "Or our problems will be far worse than they are already."