Scientists update 60-year-old monitor of nuclear threats to include new worries
Back in the days of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock based at the University of Chicago had one purpose only: to gauge the danger that the U.S. and the former Soviet Union would blow civilization to bits with their arsenals of nuclear weapons.
But lately, that original message of the iconic clock has seemed way too 1947.
So on Wednesday, when the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveils the first change to the Doomsday Clock in four years, the risk of a nuclear holocaust will be just one among many threats that nudge the position of the clock’s portentous minute hand. The keepers of the clock have expanded its purview to include the threat of global warming, the genetic engineering of diseases and other “threats to global survival.”
It may be a stretch to put nuclear weapons and climate change in the same category, but that’s one way the organization is trying to keep its 60-year-old clock relevant at a time when bioterrorism and radical groups can threaten the largest nations. In an added bid to influence policymakers and draw an international audience, the Bulletin is moving this year’s announcement from its customary place in Chicago to a dual event held in London and Washington.
“It’s time to pay attention in a very serious way to what we see as potentially civilization-ending technology and trends,” said Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director. “We extended and really took the idea of doomsday seriously.”
Officials would not say before Wednesday what the clock’s new time will be, but a news release the group sent out last week suggested the minute hand would move closer to the clock’s symbolic, apocalyptic “midnight,” reflecting the “most perilous period since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Since 2002 the clock has been set at seven minutes to midnight.
The release cited increased nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea and growing terrorist threats, as well as separate dangers such as global warming.
The Bulletin’s Chicago roots extend to its founding in 1945 by nuclear scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at the U. of C. Some of the group’s board members are second-generation “atomic bomb babies,” including U. of C. physicist Henry Frisch, whose father, also a physicist, was at the first secret atomic test in New Mexico in 1945.
Although the Bulletin will remain based at the university, Benedict said Wednesday’s event, featuring such scientific celebrities as physicist Stephen Hawking, was designed to increase the group’s visibility.
“We believe this is an extraordinary time,” Benedict said. “We wanted to make sure policymakers in Washington and London heard us.”
Some arms-control experts are skeptical that the Doomsday Clock can have the same meaning it did during the Cold War. Stephen Rademaker, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation from 2002 to 2006, said the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation is less pressing today than the possibility of a nuclear bomb taking out a major city.
“Iran and North Korea do not pose the same sort of mortal threat to our society that the Soviet Union posed during the height of the Cold War,” said Rademaker, now a consultant working in Washington. The revamped Doomsday Clock, he said, amounts to “taking an old tool and trying to apply it in new circumstances.”
Though the clock’s movements may seem subjective and impenetrable to observers, insiders say the Bulletin’s board of directors treats its meetings on the clock’s position with deadly seriousness.
“Unless you’re in that room I don’t think you can have a sense of the gravity with which these decisions are taken,” said board member Natalie Goldring, a senior fellow at the institute for peace and security studies at Georgetown University.
In addition to the physicists and arms-control experts who make up most of the Bulletin’s 19-member board, Benedict said the group met over the last year with outsiders such as Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, an expert on climate change, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
Board member Frisch conceded that broadening the clock’s meaning to include global warming could dilute its traditional message on the dangers of nuclear weaponry.
“I’m mostly in the camp that feels our group’s heritage is on nuclear issues,” Frisch said. “But I’m also sympathetic to the idea that you need other voices.”
Bulletin officials said a common thread connects nuclear weapons, global warming and genetic engineering: They are all products of technology that scientists and engineers are obligated to help sort out.
“We feel a responsibility that to some extent this is our doing,” Frisch said. “I know I feel that keenly. It would be irresponsible for us to say, `OK, we brought you this, now just deal with it.'”