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Five minutes to midnight


The Doomsday Clock has clicked down a minute, and now we're only five minutes from the apocalypse, in the opinion of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), an organization started in 1945 by scientists of the Manhattan project. The clock made its first appearance in 1947, when it was set to seven minutes till midnight, and it has appeared on every cover of BAS since. The world's closest brush with oblivion came in 1953, when the clock was down to two minutes, a position it remained at for the rest of the decade.

Like most Americans of my generation, I participated in multiple 'duck and cover' drills as a child of the fifties, cowering under my desk in anticipation of the coming nuclear attack. How our flimsy desk tops were supposed to protect us from a thermonuclear explosion was never explained; we thought our teachers mad.   Some of my neighbors had bomb shelters in their back yards.  My grandmother kept a box of canned food in her basement, stores for the inevitable catastrophe. 

A generation raised in fear is now approaching retirement. The bomb shelters have long since been transformed to potting sheds or weight rooms.  The dubious logic of mutually assured destruction so far has actually worked. But the danger remains. Nuclear technology has spread, and nuclear weapons are held by increasingly unsteady hands. 

To nuclear fears, we now have the ongoing man-made change in climate, which the BAS officially acknowledged as a danger in 2007. "The strong positive energy imbalance during the solar minimum, and the consistency of the planet's energy imbalance with expectations based on estimated human-made climate forcing, together constitute a smoking gun, a fundamental verification that human-made climate forcing is the dominant forcing driving global climate change," noted climatologist James Hansen, who is a member of AAAS, and his colleagues in a recent paper. Although climate change is now almost universally recognized by thinking people, there is little action being taken to address it. Hansen believes that we have already passed a critical tipping point where substantial further global warming is now unavoidable. 

The latest tick down takes back the minute that the BAS added back to the clock in 2010, in a rare moment of optimism over the prospects for world cooperation on climate change and nuclear proliferation. Sadly, that optimism has faded.  It has now clicked back to five minutes from the apocalypse recognizing frustration that little has been accomplished. "Unfortunately, Einstein's statement in 1946 that 'everything has changed, save the way we think, remains true," commented Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the BAS Board of sponsors.

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