The Doomsday clock is still ticking

The Doomsday clock, an indicator of how close we are to nuclear apocalypse, just moved closer to meltdown that at any time since the Cold War. What's going on? asks Simon Wilson.

The Doomsday clock, an indicator of how close we are to nuclear apocalypse, just moved closer to meltdown than any time since the Cold War. What's going on? asks Simon Wilson

What is the Doomsday clock?

It's a symbol of how close the world is to destruction from a nuclear war, measured in minutes to midnight'. The clock was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an academic journal based at the University of Chicago, which last week moved the clock forward two minutes. It's the fourth time since the end of the Cold War that the scientists have decided the world is less safe. The clock now stands at five minutes to midnight: this means that, in the opinion of the Bulletin's board, the world is now more dangerous than in the early 1980s, when the US-Soviet arms race appeared to be escalating.

Who sets the Doomsday clock?

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by two nuclear scientists who were deeply concerned about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. They set the clock. By its nature, the exact time of the clock is a pretty arbitrary indicator; it's the direction of movement that is the important thing. Indeed, the original setting of the clock was a design decision: in 1947 the Bulletin's board decided to print a clock on the cover of each issue to convey the sense of a countdown' to destruction, and decided that a clock showing seven minutes to midnight looked best.

What happened next?

Two years later, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, the Bulletin decided to change the clock to stand at three minutes to midnight, as a visual symbol of the increased threat and the Doomsday clock was born. A clockface might seem like a rather crude measure of the geopolitical temperature, but it is taken very seriously by the scientific community and is seen around the world as a universal indicator of our vulnerability to nuclear apocalypse. Moreover, the academic credibility of

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the clock is beyond doubt.

These days, the clock is moved by the Bulletin's Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes the President of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking, and 18 Nobel laureates.

How often does the Doomsday clock move?

Since 1949 the Bulletin has moved its clock on just 18 occasions. In 1953, the clock was set to just two minutes to midnight its closest to date after the US and the Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices. By contrast the clock's greatest distance from midnight came in 1991, after the collapse of communism. Then the Bulletin's editors took the clock right back to 17 minutes to midnight. Since then, however, the clock has moved back towards midnight at some speed. It moved in 1995, as global military spending remained stubbornly at Cold War levels; in 1998, after India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons; and in 2002, after the US rejected a series of arms control treaties and the likelihood of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons rose. But last week the scientists issued their direst warning yet, moving the clock to five minutes to midnight and saying "we stand at the brink of a Second Nuclear Age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices."

Why is the Bulletin so nervous now?

Proliferation, globalisation, and climate change. North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the failure adequately to secure nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere, and the launch-ready status of 2,000 of the 26,000 nuclear weapons in the US and Russia all these things add up to a more dangerous world. Moreover, unlike in 1945, this "second nuclear era is characterised by a world of porous national borders, rapid communications that facilitate the spread of technical knowledge, and expanded commerce in potentially dangerous dual-use technologies and materials". But as if that's not bad enough, there's now a new threat to humankind that is seen as almost on a par with nuclear war: global warming.

What do they say about global warming?

Last week, the Bulletin held a joint press conference in Washington and London, in an effort to attract more world attention to their message: that global warming "poses a dire threat to human civilisation". There are two reasons for this. First, climate change threatens to destroy some of the habitats and farmland that we depend on for survival through flooding and desertification. In turn, this is likely to cause unprecedented mass migrations and wars over arable land, water and other natural resources. And second, global warming is causing new pressure to expand civilian nuclear power, which in turn increases the risk of proliferation and the security threat from nuclear material.

What would the scientists do?

To cut the risks of global catastrophe, the Bulletin urges four first steps: reduce the launch-readiness of US and Russian nuclear weapons; destroy 20,000 warheads over the next ten years; dramatically increase efforts to locate secure nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere; and stop production of nuclear material in both military and civilian facilities. While critics of the Bulletin's clock see it a relic of Cold War thinking, their message has won some unlikely support from a quartet of US statesmen, including ex-defence secretary William Perry and the arch-hawk secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Last week, the four declared that the world is indeed on the brink of a dangerous new nuclear era. In Kissinger's view, reliance on nuclear weapons is "becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective". As such, Washington must now take the lead in creating a "world without nuclear weapons".