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Hands of 'Doomsday Clock' Closest to Midnight Since 1953


Robert Rosner, chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, right, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists member Lawrence Krauss, left, unveil the Doomsday Clock during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Jan. 25, 2018.

A group of scientists has moved the hands of the closely watched "Doomsday Clock" to two minutes to midnight, reflecting strong concern about recent geo-political events.

"We have made a clear statement the world is getting more dangerous," theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University told reporters Wednesday at the National Press Club.

The annual symbolic warning on the risk of global annihilation goes back to 1947 at the dawn of the atomic age,

"It is as close as it has ever been to midnight in the 71-year history of the clock," explained Krauss, just after the announcement that the hands moved forward 30 seconds.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists member Lawrence Krauss.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists member Lawrence Krauss.

At times of relatively lesser concern about Armageddon, the clock's hands have been as far as 17 minutes from midnight.

Rebecca Bronson, the president of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which sets the clock's time, said "the nuclear situation took center stage in our discussions" for the decision to place the hands at their closest point to midnight since 1953, when both the United States and Soviet Union were testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere.

"We could see a return to a nuclear arms race," amid renewed rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, as well as North Korea's quest to be capable of launching a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile that could hit the mainland United States, warned Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University.

Also of concern to the Bulletin's scientists, who include 15 Nobel laureates, is the undermining of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, upgrading of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and the two powers eschewing arms control negotiations.

"It's clear that the new (U.S.) Nuclear Posture Review has reversed course," said Robert Rosner, a professor of physics and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Asian pivot

In the Asia-Pacific region, the scientists point to increasing tensions in the South China Sea "with relations between the United States and China insufficient to re-establish a stable security situation," according to a Bulletin statement.

The threats of new wars are not the only risk factor for moving the clock's hands, according to the Bulletin, noting the effects of climate change and concerns about emerging technologies, such as machine learning, becoming weaponized.

A member of the media films the Doomsday Clock after a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Jan. 25, 2018, announcing that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes
A member of the media films the Doomsday Clock after a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Jan. 25, 2018, announcing that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes

"We are still in a position where we have options," to mitigate global warming (which most scientists say is primarily caused by mankind's carbon emissions), Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told reporters.

The group notes that while President Donald Trump is rolling back U.S. climate action, there is still a widespread commitment in the country to take seriously the risks of climate change.

But "the time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past," said Rosner.

Two views of clock

There has been no immediate response from the White House after VOA queried the press office for a response to comments by the Bulletin scientists about the Trump administration.

Some conservative critics regard the clock as an expression of exaggerated angst of politically left-leaning academics.

"We present the clock not so much as doom and gloom," but to start a discussion among policy makers and the public, asserted Krauss.

"It's not all doom or gloom," agreed Squassoni, who held positions in the U.S. government dealing with non-proliferation. She noted the Bulletin's scientists are offering suggestions to reduce the risk of catastrophe, including that "Donald Trump might want to refrain from provocative rhetoric about North Korea."

Squassoni also said a global push is needed to bring about an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs and that holding talks with Pyongyang with no pre-conditions would be a step in the right direction.

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