On doomsday time


The Doomsday Clock | Photo courtesy of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

For our readers who may have missed the memo, I should probably just come out with it.  I’m afraid we’re only three minutes from global catastrophe – or at least, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Instituted by the creators of the atom bomb, the Bulletin has long been a forum for discussing the inherent dangers of possessing nuclear energy, and since 1947, its esteemed board of scientists have employed the iconic Doomsday Clock to illustrate just how close humanity stands from the brink.  On January 22nd, citing additional concerns relating to climate change and emerging new technologies, the Bulletin decided to move the clock from 11:55 to 11:57.

It is important to note that the last time we found ourselves so close to midnight was back in 1984 during a particularly frigid period of the decades-long Cold War.  And now, more than thirty years on, it appears we’ve backpedaled to the same level of global uncertainty.  Surely, the Bulletin had its reasons for changing the time, and in an effort to better understand them, I contacted the man who moved the minute hand himself, Dr. Richard Somerville, a climate scientist and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.

My correspondence with Somerville began in the days leading up to what was predicted to be the worst snowstorm in New York City’s history.  So, I may have joked about it feeling like midnight in the City — a joke, which fell hopelessly flat.

My first question to break the ice, so to speak, regarded the process Somerville and his colleagues used to set the Doomsday Clock.  Apparently, every year the Science and Security Board along with members of the Board of Sponsors convene to deliberate on what they perceive to be the greatest threats to humanity.  And the latest decision to move the clock forward was made during their November meeting, which Somerville described as “serious and thorough and unhurried.”


Dr. Richard Somerville | Image credit: Sylvia Bal Somerville

Sitting around a table to think up the many ways the modern world may eventually fall to its knees is hardly my idea of fun.  Nevertheless, I firmly believe somebody should be engaged in this type of thought and ideally, many somebody’s who base their conjectures on solid foundations.  But why should policymakers and global citizens take these particular individuals so seriously, if at all?

“We are all experts in our fields,” Somerville responded when I asked him the same question.  Indeed, the list of members on both the Science and Security Board and the Board of Sponsors reads like a who’s who of the world’s leading scientists (case in point, see Stephen Hawking listed 16 names down from the top).  To put it another way, the Board of Sponsors counts 17 Nobel Laureates among its 37 members.

At this point, the e-mail chain between Somerville and me got a bit more crowded, as a certain Kennette Benedict joined the discussion.  Come to find out Ms. Benedict is the Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin, and now much to my delight, she, too, was indulging my curiosity about the clock.  To follow-up Somerville’s comments, Benedict noted that “[i]n addition to top academic and independent scientists, several past board members have gone on to serve in US government positions.”  In this way, according to Benedict, they are better poised to address some of the problems outlined in the pages of the Bulletin.

It bears mentioning that the organization’s interest in shaping policy has deep roots.  In a short history of the Bulletin, authors David Kaiser and Benjamin Wilson write, “…as the early atomic scientists knew, to pretend that truth and power can live apart is to misunderstand each.”  And over the past 70 years, the organization has honored this legacy by working to build a bridge between scientists and policymakers.

“In the years leading up to the end of the Cold War,” explained Benedict, “Frank von Hippel [a member of the Board of Sponsors] talked with Evgeny Velikhov, then adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, about the possibility of nuclear disarmament and helped influence Gorbachev to propose major measures to reduce nuclear arsenals.”

Mushroom Cloud

Trinity test (1945), Alamogordo, NM | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Benedict went on to cite more recent illustrations of the Bulletin‘s political clout, but there seems to be a growing sense among her colleagues that the tide may be turning.  In the same feature detailing its history, Bulletin contributors Kaiser and Wilson write, “Since the end of the Cold War, scientists’ place in the polity seems to have settled into a new reality: just another interest group jockeying for attention in a media-saturated world.”

And I sensed similar sentiments from Somerville when my questions shifted to the subject of climate change. “This urgency isn’t political or ideological.  This urgency is dictated by Mother Nature in the form of the physics and chemistry and biology of the climate system,” he pressed.  To further his point, he went on to describe the impending collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; it is expected to drive up the global average sea level an additional 15 feet. “Thus, by dithering and procrastinating, rather than acting to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” Somerville continued, “people alive today are effectively sentencing future generations to a climate that will be severely disrupted.”

Though Somerville and his peers may be frustrated by the lack of political will, he isn’t as cynical as one might suspect.  Even average citizens, he suggested, can make a difference.  “It is important to tell the politician who wants your vote that climate change and the other threats are very high on your priority list,” he went on.

But according to the Bulletin, it is not just climate change that needs our immediate attention, and reiterating this point, Somerville concluded by saying, “It is a big mistake to think that the world can only focus on one thing at a time.  It is quite possible to act to meet all these threats, and we must.”

So, with just 3 minutes on the clock, the Bulletin asks, what is the world waiting for?