The world is as close to destruction as it has been in the last 20 years, a group of scientific leaders, policy experts and former officials warned Tuesday.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists chose to keep its so-called Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight this year, but said the lack of a tick forward shouldn’t be taken as a good sign.
“The danger of a nuclear catastrophe today in my judgment is greater than it was during the Cold War,” former Defense Secretary William Perry said during a video conference from Stanford during the Bulletin’s announcement of this year’s Doomsday Clock.
“My judgment about it being more dangerous than the Cold War has been joined by the Doomsday Clock. This three minutes to midnight is a more dangerous, more ominous forecast than two-thirds of the years during the Cold War.”
The clock, a metaphor for how close to the planet is to destruction, has been around since 1947. The Bulletin moved it from five minutes to three minutes last year, the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1984.
There were two bright spots over the last year in making the world a safer place, Bulletin members said: the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
But a slew of negative developments kept the minute hand in place, including North Korea’s progress on its nuclear program, the United States’s and Russia’s modernization of their nuclear programs and a lack of recognition from some U.S. politicians about the reality of climate change.
To Perry, who served as Defense secretary from 1994 to 1997, the modernization of nuclear arsenals increases the risk for an accidental nuclear war.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who served from 1982 to 1989, said the United States needs to have better relations with Russia and China to avert disaster.
“We have a world awash in change,” he said. “There is nowhere you can look and say there’s stable prosperity and everything’s going great. It’s a terrible mess.”
“The key is working with Russia and China,” he added. “We need to be working toward getting a meaningful conversation going.”
Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the Bulletin Board of Sponsors, listed six steps world leaders need to take to move the clock backward: reduce proposed spending on nuclear modernization, reenergize the disarmament process, engage North Korea, follow up on the Paris climate accords with action, deal with commercial nuclear waste problems and create institutions to address “potentially catastrophic” misuse of new technologies.
“There is no sane strategic use of nuclear weapons, and we need to reduce our nuclear arsenal, not create a new generation of nuclear weapons,” he said.
He also encouraged President Obama to use the final months of his presidency to address nuclear issues, such as the country’s nuclear modernization.
“I’m hoping in fact that in this final part of his term, where he can stand up more broadly as he has on climate change, that he’ll also go back to where he began his presidency and talk about nuclear weapons,” Krauss said. “He should be able to do that. He has a bully pulpit, and I encourage him, if he’s listening to do that.”