The Doomsday Clock Moves Two Minutes Closer to Midnight

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

In February 2007 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that, on the advice of an impressive gathering of world-renowned analysts and scientists, the Bulletin’s famous doomsday clock minute hand was to be moved two minutes closer to midnight, from 11:53 to 11:55.1

The clock, established in 1947, only two years into the nuclear age, is a simple, evocative way of characterizing the seriousness of the nuclear threat. By 1984, at the height (or nadir) of the Reagan-Brezhnev era, the clock read three minutes to midnight. But less than a decade later, with the ending of the Cold War and substantial cuts in nuclear arsenals, the minute hand had been moved all the way back to 17 minutes before midnight—its farthest point from doomsday. Since then the minute hand has been moved steadily forward in response to a succession of disturbing developments: in 1995 there were concerns over the control of nuclear materials in Russia; in 1998 India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons; and in 2002 the Bush Administration began in earnest its withdrawal from and renunciation of formal arms control processes and agreements.

Here is what the Bulletin scientists say about the nuclear peril in 2007: “Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.”

This time these eminent contemporary prophets go beyond the nuclear peril to include dramatic changes in the planet’s environmental and climatic conditions. The effects of climate change, they say, may be less dramatic in the short term, but there is no denying that in the coming decades we will face environmental change that will lead to “drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.” The concerns of the Atomic Scientists were subsequently validated by the report of the International Panel on Climate Change.

There are signs that the daunting nuclear weapons challenges are being recognized, even in some unlikely circles. A group of lapsed Cold Warriors, led by former US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and including other former custodians of US nuclear expansion and deterrence strategies, has declared the world to be “on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era” and thus has issued a call to “leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise.” Their statement2 calls for a recommitment to the NPT’s objective of nuclear disarmament and challenges the United States in particular to work toward “a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.”

When speaking of doomsday scenarios, it should always be remembered that there are many people throughout the world facing much more immediate doomsday realities. They don’t read the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and don’t have the luxury of debating changes to a symbolic doomsday clock. In the lives of the world’s marginalized, catastrophic peril is not a possibility to be avoided but a daily reality. For them the hour of midnight has already struck and the bells of alarm ring out to a world that remains steadfastly deaf. “Darfur” is the current byword for unheeded cries for help, but many other place names could be used.

It is clear that averting doomsday requires a multidimensional and sustained response that incorporates the abolition of nuclear weapons, environmental sustainability, and protection and relief for those already suffering doomsday conditions.

 

Notes

  1. The January/February 2007 issue explains the decision to move the clock and carries an impressive collection of articles and reflections on the implications.
  2. The statement, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” was written by Mr. Kissinger along with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, and was endorsed by a number of former officials and diplomats. It was published in The Wall Street Journal on 4 January 2007 and can be found here.
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