WASHINGTON -– The world crept closer to doomsday on Thursday.
That's according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which each year updates the hands on a clock meant to symbolize how close we are to the annihilation of the human race, or midnight. For the last three years, the world was five minutes from the end. Today, we're three minutes away.
The two-minute move is symbolic, but it gives a sense of how grim the outlook some of the best scientific minds have for humanity. The decision to move the hands forward, said Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists executive director Kennette Benedict, came about largely due to the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from catastrophe," Benedict said Thursday at an event held in the auditorium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale."
The announcement came the day after the U.S. Senate voted to acknowledge that climate change is real, bringing it up to speed with every major world scientific body, but it declined to acknowledge that human activity plays any role.
Decisions on the Doomsday Clock are made by the Bulletin's Science and Security Board. Richard Somerville, a member of the board and a research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, ticked off a list of climate-related reasons for pessimism this year. He cited the latest National Climate Assessment, released in May, the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that 2014 was the world's hottest year on record. While those indicators all are grim, world leaders have moved slowly on enacting meaningful limits on emissions.
"To profoundly transform the Earth's climate will harm millions of people, and threaten many key ecological systems upon which humanity relies," said Somerville. "To avoid such unacceptable levels of climate change, the need for urgent action instead of continued procrastination is clear."
While world leaders have set a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the current emissions trajectory puts the world on path to more like 3 degrees to 8 degrees C (5 degrees to 15 degrees F). "It only took modest 3- to 8-degree warming to bring the world out from the frigid depths of the last ice age," said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute specializing in climate risks. Warming on that level again, he said, raises "the specter of a future where the surface of the earth is again radically transformed."
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the clock in 1947 to use "the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet." The closest the hands have ever come to midnight was 11:58, in 1953, after the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union began testing thermonuclear bombs.
While the movement of the minute hand closer to midnight signals distress among Bulletin members, the whole point of the symbolic clock is to draw public attention to the issues in hopes forcing change.
"This threat looms over all of humanity," said Somerville. "We need to respond now while there is still time."