It's late

January 18, 2007

Remember when nuclear winter was what everyone worried about? Then came global warming. What a choice; in contemplating the end of civilization as the world knows it, fashionable worriers have swung from ice to fire.

But the threat of one doesn't rule out the threat of the other, and yesterday the people who put out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their venerable Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight, on the notion that nukes and greenhouse gases each pose a danger to the globe - and, in both cases, it's a growing one.

At the end of the Cold War, the 60-year-old Doomsday Clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight, but it's been creeping closer to the fatal hour ever since; yesterday's adjustment resets it at 11:55.

On the nuclear front, members of the Bulletin's board pointed to the weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, and to the threat of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials - but also to the growing interest among American defense officials in smaller, "tactical" nuclear weapons. The existence of such weapons in the U.S. would not only pose the danger that the U.S. itself would use them, but also inspire other countries to develop the same sorts of bombs. (India and Pakistan come to mind.) Eventually, someone will mistakenly decide that a small Armageddon is manageable and not the precursor to a much bigger one.

The simple solution: Step up pressure to eliminate nuclear warheads.

On the global warming front, the Bulletin argues that it's happening, that people are stoking it, and that if nothing is done very soon, it will be too late to fend off an eventual worldwide catastrophe. It won't be quite the grand finale that nuclear war would be, but it would still be a civilization breaker.

"We take the idea of doomsday very seriously," said Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin's executive director - no matter how it happens.

The simple solution: Get serious about cutting carbon emissions.

The closest the Doomsday Clock ever got to midnight was 11:58, back in 1953, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs. Somehow for almost 60 years the world has managed to keep itself in one piece. But it seems to be entering a new era of peril. The alarm is ringing.

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