Tick, Tock, 2012

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 9th, 2012

It's that time again. Tick, Tock.

One of Herblock's creepy anthropomorphic H-bombs, from 1962. From the Library of Congress.

Every year, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists get together to discuss whether, and how much, they should adjust their famed Doomsday Clock, ticking down to atomic midnight.

One of the coolest things about my recent relocation to Washington, DC, was being invited to attend the symposium (just as an audience-member) for the clock-changing event. I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

The last time the BAS folks changed the clock, in 2010, they turned it back by 1 minute, because of "worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit effect of climate change." Ah, such optimistic times! Only six minutes to midnight, still.

I would be inclined to shave that gained minute back again, at the very least, putting us at five minutes to midnight. My reasons are:

  • Possible political instability in North Korea following the sudden death of Dear Leader and the replacement with his young and untested son.
  • Constant drum-beating in the West for war with Iran, despite not much evidence that their program has been doing anything urgent since 2003.
  • Iran's apparent continued push for latent nuclear weapons capability. (Which is problematic both for its own sake, and the possible effects it has with regards to Western intervention, sanctions, etc., which are ratcheting things up on all sides over there.)
  • The efforts towards mitigating climate change have been fickle at best and seem to be losing public interest as the attentions turn entirely to the economy. I don't actually see the United States, much less the rest of the world, actually getting their act together on this anytime soon.
  • Pakistan-US relations seem to be getting especially testy, which bodes ill.

Or to put it another way, I think things are at least as bad as they were in 2007; I think the 2010 change was too optimistic. None of the above is terribly clever analysis, I'd be the first to admit. But it's about the same level of "ripped from the headlines" analysis that seems to have affected past clock changes.

But that's just me, and I'm a natural cynic. My views on the future vacillate between the pessimistic and the middling.

I'll be eager to see what other people have to say on this, at the symposium. I'll even try to update the blog with the positions I find most interesting, if I get the chance to. So check back at the end of the day for a bit more.

The Doomsday Symposium has an amazing view of the Capitol, where many of the probable architects of our current and future Doomsday scenarios work. It feels appropriate, anyway.

Live-ish Blogging from the symposium (I won't quote anybody specifically, because apparently we are not supposed to do that):

Session 1: Nuclear Weapons and Prospects for Disarmament. Basic conclusion: prospects not great. Domestic issues loom big: the current U.S. President lacks the political strength to really push for anything, even if he really wanted to, and Congress is so dysfunctional at the moment that it can't pass even no-brainers. Well, it's a way to start a morning.

Session 2: Civilian Nuclear Power After Fukushima. Basic conclusion: Fukushima not only not unforeseeable, but was actually foreseen, but not acted upon. Japan's case really was a managerial problem more than a technical one. Geologists and nuclear engineers have pretty different approaches and understandings of the world, and the prospects of their coordination seem poor. Unclear (to me anyway) whether we count Fukushima as a net "bad" for the question of Doomsday or a net "good." Did we learn enough? Did what we learn make us more scared or more confident? Most of the panel seemed to me to lean towards the former more than the latter. Started to snow lightly.

Luncheon: Nuclear Risks in Southeast Asia. Basic conclusion: both India and Pakistan are increasing their fissile material stockpiles, probably not because they are in a "race" but because they are in pursuit of whatever they need to feel confident in their deterrence. Unclear where it's going from here, especially with regards to tactical weapons and ballistic missile defense. More or less bad news. Snowfall increasing — does it correlate with bad news?

Session 3: Climate Emergency and Public Policy. Jeez. What a depressing session. Basic conclusion: the longer we put off controlling CO2 emissions, the longer it will take (e.g. hundreds of years) for the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to drop to non-horribly-altering levels. ("If you want to keep a climate anything like the Holocene, you've got to start right now.") So the longer we wait, the harder it gets. And we (globally) aren't doing anything of substance, really. Interesting fact: the tropics are the place where the climate variability is the lowest, and you can actually see the effect of anthropogenic climate change happening in real time. This has important policy implications: we're already making it so places in the tropics have hotter summers than they did only a few decades ago, directly correlated with the CO2 in the atmosphere. So it's not just that countries in the tropics are more vulnerable to climate change because they have more poverty, worse infrastructure, etc., but because they are going to feel the effects first. "It's going to take a complete revamping of our energy supply." Good luck with that, ugh. (And this of course includes the Middle East and Southeast Asia.) The snow has decreased; definitely no correlation with bad news.

Session 4: Biosecurity and Government Regulation. A pretty balanced outlook — we haven't had our biological Hiroshima or Fukushima yet (or even a Bhopal), so it's unclear what level of fear is appropriate, but it's also further down the radar of governments and NGOs. One speaker emphasized that we shouldn't go nuts every time something problematic comes out, another emphasized that the tempo of scientific breakthroughs in this field is massive and the uncertainties are large. (I've already expressed my own thoughts on this quite recently — I lean towards being pretty fearful, because the threshold for horribly dangerous things becoming easy for disgruntled grad students seems to be rushing up quite quickly.) Basic conclusion: it's unclear whether things are getting worse or better or staying the same in this area. Snowing again, in big fat flakes.

Concluding Remarks by Robert Socolow. State of the Doomsday Assessment, based on emergent themes of the conference. US politics and the body politics: quite poor. Rejection of analytical reasoning, rejection of science as a way of knowing, rejection of common ground. Globalization: looking bad. "Almost nothing we've done stupidly is not being replicated" by emerging nations re: consumerism, fossil energy, nuclear power, nuclear weapons. Overall: a pretty bleak assessment. Socolow says its a balanced message in the end, but I can't help but see it as pretty pessimistic. More snow, but seems like it is composed of smaller flakes.

Well... I can't say this has been an uplifting symposium, but it's been pretty interesting on the whole. And what an interesting group of folks, too. We'll see tomorrow what they actually decide to do with the Doomsday Clock, but I'd be pretty surprised if they didn't go forward at least one minute towards Doomsday. I'd be inclined towards two, myself, after all of that. But maybe things will seem less bleak in the morning, assuming there hasn't been enough snow to really snarl up DC. We'll see.

Update (1/10/12): They moved the clock one more minute closer to midnight, after all.

4 Responses to “Tick, Tock, 2012”

  1. Paul Guinnessy says:

    In the early days it was just the editors who decided but I think its an advisory group that decide whether the clock hands move today.

    I would actually put climate in your list at 1. Followed by food shortages at number 2 (we’re reaching the limits of the amount of food we can produce).

    I find it unfortunate that apart from Iran (and this crazy belief that you could have a limited nuclear exchange with minimal causalities) this is the only time the media seems to pays attention to the issue of nuclear security.

    • Hi, Paul! Well, after I saw the climate change presentation, I am convinced as well that it should probably be reason #1. (Mine weren’t meant to be in any particular order.) It seems like that is going to be looming over everything in the next few decades, and only getting more important as time goes on.

      As for the media, well. You know. They’re the media. They’re very serio—wait, was that a celebutante doing something ridiculous?

  2. […] official: it’s five minutes to midnight again. I wasn’t surprised to hear it. In honor of the changing of the clock, and the attempts by scientists to make weighty […]

  3. […] I went last year, but didn’t make it this year. The Doomsday Clock is currently at five minutes to midnight, which is to say, the same as it was in 2007, and the worst it has been since the end of the Cold War. (The clock’s closest times were two minutes in 1953, and three minutes in 1984, both of which were admittedly pretty tense times. Interestingly, in both cases, the clocks were radically moved back within a few years.) They changed the clock one minute forward after last year’s meeting, which was in line with my predictions having sat in on the event. […]