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Tick Tock

“When all is said and done, more is said than done.” That was the assessment of Richard Somerville, distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute of the University of California, San Diego and member of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whilecommenting on the state of political leadership around the globe on urgent matters like climate change and nuclear proliferation. The statement was made at a press conference last week announcing the Bulletin’s decision to move the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. http://thebulletin.org/three-minutes-and-counting7938

Founded seventy years ago by scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons, the Bulletin seeks to educate and mobilize citizens to engage governments on how they address – or fail to address – grave threats to humanity. Since 1947 the Clock hands have moved closer to and farther from an apocalyptic midnight depending on the assessment of a distinguished, non-partisan panel of scientists and security experts. Experts agree that “the Clock is a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.” In 1991 the Clock hands were set at 17 minutes to midnight, reflecting the easing of tensions at the end of the Cold War. Since then the hands have moved ever closer to midnight as the hope for significant dismantling of nuclear arsenals has faded and as the threat of global warming has grown ever more urgent and apparent.

The decisions to move the hands forward a full two minutes to three minutes to midnight is based on the scientists’ blunt and uncompromising assessment of failed political leadership:

In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernization, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.

Evidence of that failure is easily found. The same week the Bulletin was sounding its alarm, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a resolution that would have acknowledged climate change and linked it conclusively to human behavior. Of course, politicians like to hide behind the claim that they aren’t scientists. They aren’t physicians or ethicists either, for the most part, but have no trouble making judgments about women’s health care. Nor are many of them economists. But that doesn’t stop them from promoting complex economic policies that benefit loyal friends among their elite supporters.

No, they aren’t scientists. But they are neither ignorant nor stupid. Might they, instead, be captive to the short term interests of the fossil fuel industry? Or eager to promote – with presidential support – a fabulously expensive nuclear weapons’ modernization program that, incidentally, will pour money toward key defense contractors among their constituents? Or ideologically beholden to an electoral system that rewards uncompromising and frightening military dominance in a world far more complex and nuanced than the cold war ideology they and their donors have apparently not outgrown? One need not be a scientist to answer, with some certainty, these questions.

“The threat is serious, the time is short.” Actions required to step back from the precipice are known and available to us. It’s not a question of finding the way; it is a matter of summoning the will.

During the past several years the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board has grown increasingly concerned as world political leaders dithered, leaving an undeniable threat to the future of mankind – climate change – largely unaddressed. In 2014, leaders in the nuclear weapons countries have consented to a mad dash down an expensive and dangerous path toward “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals; in the process, they turned away from reasonable disarmament and allowed an economic dispute between Ukraine and Russia to turn into an East-West confrontation that hinders cooperation on worldwide nuclear security, arms control, and non-proliferation. These stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization.

Biblical prophets lacked the science to depict the exact physical contours of the world’s end, so they relied on wildly imaginative metaphors to warn an imperiled humanity. Today scientists are in a position to offer far clearer portraits of the way Earth might actually come to an end as a life-sustaining planet. Faith and science do not compete in this regard. Together they offer both the urgent warning and the grim images of likely devastation. And both science and faith present a common call to all of us who are both citizens and creatures. “I call heaven and earth to witness this day that I have set before you life and death. . . . Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” In other words, when all is in an ultimate sense said and done, will more have been done than said?

John H. Thomas
January 29, 2015

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