Scientists move Doomsday Clock closer to midnight

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

It’s two and a half minutes to midnight. Do you know who’s in the White House?

The keepers of the Doomsday Clock moved the symbolic timepiece 30 seconds closer to midnight — the hour of global catastrophe — about a week after Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office.

The clock kept by the science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is now the closest to midnight since the icy Cold War days of the 1950s.

In its clock decisions, the board considers not only nuclear weapons, but also political turbulence, rising temperatures from industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels and technological innovations in biology, the cyber realm and artificial intelligence.

Characterizing the danger as great and the need for action urgent, the board’s statement reads, “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

Factors in the board’s decision to change the clock include:

• The United States and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, remained at odds in a variety of theaters.

• The United States and Russia continued modernizing nuclear forces.

• The Russian government directed cyber offensives and deception campaigns, interfering in the U.S. presidential election to benefit Donald Trump and sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Information, monocultures, fake news and the hacking and release of politically sensitive emails may have had an illegitimate impact on the U.S. presidential election, threatening the fabric of democracy,” the board said.

• Trump, as a candidate and president-elect, has “made ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal” and he has “shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security. … In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

• The Paris climate agreement faces the threat of a U.S. president who says he doesn’t believe the science proving climate change. Meanwhile, carbon-dioxide emissions have not decreased and global warming around the world continues.

• Strident nationalism is on the rise in the United States, France, England and elsewhere.

• North Korea conducted underground nuclear tests and continued to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities.

• Tension continues between India and Pakistan across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Ticking down toward doom

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and helped develop the first atomic weapons. Two years later, the Doomsday Clock started ticking.

Today, the clock serves as a globally recognized arbiter of the planet’s health and safety. The threats the science and security board considers have multiplied since 1947, when “there was one technology with the potential to destroy the planet and that was nuclear power,” stated executive director Rachel Bronson.

“This year’s clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual,” Bronson said.

“In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways,” added Bronson, who emphasized the need for “senior leaders across the globe to calm rather than stoke tensions that could lead to war, either by accident or miscalculation.”

For the record

“Facts are indeed stubborn things and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long-term.” — from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists statement on changing the Doomsday Clock.

Fail-safe

The issue of nuclear “first use” is more urgent than ever with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, say U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who recently introduced the Restricting the First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act.

The measure would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war.

“It is a frightening reality that the U.S. now has a commander in chief who has demonstrated ignorance of the nuclear triad, stated his desire to be ‘unpredictable’ with nuclear weapons and as the president-elect was making sweeping statements about U.S. nuclear policy over Twitter,” Lieu said.

Markey said, “Neither President Trump, nor any other president, should be allowed to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. By restricting the first use of nuclear weapons, this legislation enshrines that simple principle into law.”

The measure is backed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and many peace and justice groups.

Derek Johnson, executive director of the no-nukes group Ground Zero, warned without congressional action, Trump’s power to fire now is absolute.

“Within 5 minutes of giving the order, civilization-ending missiles would fire from underground silos and hurtle across the Earth at roughly 22 times the speed of sound,” he said. “There would be no take-backs.”