Five minutes to midnight

At a press conference in Washington today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it is moving its famous "Doomsday Clock," which measures how close the world is to global catastrophe, one minute closer to midnight. The clock now stands at five minutes to midnight. It was moved back to six minutes in 2010 in a surge of -- apparently unwarranted-- optimism about the Obama administration's nuclear disarmament agenda and global climate change talks. This year's move was prompted by what the BAS sees as a lack of progress on both those issues. 

Jayantha Dhanapala, a member of the BAS board and a former U.N. under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, said at today's even that "the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear and leadership is failing." He continued: 

The ratification...of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States reversed the previous drift in U.S.-Russia nuclear relations. However, failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Ira, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea... continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.

The stalling of the Obama administration's non-proliferation agenda was one of FP's 2011 Stories You Missed.

In recent years the BAS has also been increasingly looking at climate change. And according to George Mason Professor and BAS Science and Security Board Member, "The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in earth's atmosphere."

The meltdown at Fukushima was clearly the big story of the year, but the board members -- perhaps reflecting the group's double focus on nonproliferation and climate change -- seemed divided about its ramifications. While the post-Fukushima backlash against nuclear power could reduce proliferation risks, board member Lawrence Krauss noted, it could also increase reliance on environmentally dangerous fossil fuels. 

The closest the clock has ever gotten to midnight was 2 minutes in 1953, following the U.S. decision to develop the hydrogen bomb. It was as high as 17 minutes in 1991 following the end of the Cold War. FP's resident optimist Charles Kenny skeptically noted on Twitter, "Oh, come on. 2 mins closer than 1980? Imminence of End Times closer than height of cold war? Rubbish."

He has a point, though I think it's clear that the BAS judges its doomsday risk a bit differently today than it does during the Cold War. The focus is less on superpowers launching a nuclear war -- a thankfully remote possibility -- than terrorists acquiring nuclear material, or the world hitting the worst end of the IPCC projections. 

While the BAS claims to avoid playing politics or taking a U.S.-centric approach, it's hard not to read today's announcement as an expression of disappointment that the Obama administration has lived up to expectations on climate change and nonproliferation. I'd say that's probably a better frame to use for examining the results than actually comparing today's risk of nuclear war to 1962.

It does seem though, that by expanding its focus to include climate change, the metaphorical power of the doomsday clock has been diluted somewhat. We're not waiting for a Hiroshima-like bang when global warming becomes a reality, but a slow process during which its effects are increasingly felt. In other words -- unlike nuclear war -- when we hit climate midnight, how will we know it?


Fidel thinks Americans should vote for a robot over Obama

First Fidel Castro came out against fracking. Now, only days later, he's come out against Barack Obama. In his latest "reflection" in state-run media on Monday, the former Cuban leader declared that a "robot" would do a better job governing the United States and preventing "a war that would end the life of our species" than President Obama, "for whom, in his desperate quest for reelection, the dreams of [Martin] Luther King are more light years away than earth is from the nearest habitable planet."

It's biting stuff from a man who in 2008 described Obama as "more intelligent, refined, and even-handed" than his Republican challenger John McCain, whom Castro labeled "old, belligerent, uncultivated, unintelligent, and in poor health" (the Comandante, no spring chicken, doesn't mince words, does he?). In 2009, Castro expressed faith in Obama's "honesty" about wanting to reach out to Cuban leaders and surprise that Obama's popularity was declining, blaming the phenomenon on "traditional racism" in America (during the 2008 campaign, he argued that millions of white Americans "cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that a black person ... could occupy the White House, which is called just that: white"). A year later, Castro praised Obama's health care reform, though he tweaked the U.S. leader on climate change and immigration reform.

In fact, Castro has been growing disillusioned with Obama for some time. In September, Castro condemned the NATO intervention in Libya, declaring that Obama, the "yankee president," had served up "gibberish" during an address at the U.N. General Assembly and committed "monstrous crimes" in Libya. A few days later, Castro scoffed at Obama's suggestion that the United States would consider softening its stance toward Cuba if the Cuban government made a serious effort to "provide liberty for its people," and called Obama "stupid" in reference to the case of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States for spying.

But, lest recent headlines like "CANDIDATE-BOT 3000 Model 'Mitt Romney' Being Glitchy Today" and "I Think Mitt Romney Is a Shape-Shifting Robot" confuse you, Castro does not appear to be endorsing the Republican frontrunner. In his op-ed, Castro added that the Republicans were worse still -- carrying "more nuclear arms on their backs than ideas for peace in their heads."

And as pundits lavish their attention today on the latest polling out of New Hampshire, Castro likes the robot's chances. "I'm sure 90 percent of voting Americans, especially Hispanics, blacks, and the growing number of impoverished middle class, would vote for the robot," he declared. Anyone want to go out on a limb and predict a robot write-in victory in the Granite State?

Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images