January 17, 2007


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction--the figurative midnight--and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences and nanotechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm.


For four decades, the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s overt hostility coupled with their enormous nuclear arsenals defined the nuclear threat. The equation for nuclear holocaust was simple: Heightened tensions between the two jittery superpowers would lead to an all-out nuclear exchange. Today, the potential for an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia remains, with both countries anachronistically maintaining more than 1,000 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within tens of minutes. But a deliberate attack by Russia or the United States on the other is unthinkable.

Unfortunately, however, the possibility of a nuclear exchange between countries remains. In 1999 and again in 2001, India and Pakistan threatened each other with nuclear arms. And despite past successes in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons to countries around the world, nuclear proliferation seems to present a great danger today, with countries such as North Korea and Iran actively pursuing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Nuclear terrorism also poses a new risk, as fissile materials remain unsecured in many parts of the world, making them more available to groups that seek destructive means.


Fossil-fuel technologies such as coal-burning plants powered the industrial revolution, bringing unparalleled economic prosperity to many parts of the world. In the 1950s, however, scientists began measuring year-to-year changes in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere that they could relate to fossil fuel combustion, and they began to develop the implications for Earth’s temperature and for climate change. Fifty years later, leading scientists agree that carbon-burning technologies continue to make Earth warmer at an unprecedented rate. They warn that the consequences could drastically alter both the planet and human life. Already, ice packs in Greenland are rapidly disappearing, which, in turn, threatens the existence of hundreds of species such as polar bears and the traditions of whole societies such as the Inuit. The future looks even bleaker, as scientists continue to observe cascading effects on Earth’s complex ecosystems.

Emerging Technologies

Advances in genetics and biology over the last five decades have inspired a host of new possibilities--both positive and troubling. With greater understanding of genetic material and of how physiological systems interact, biologists can fight disease better and improve overall human health. But this knowledge may also afford opportunities to program organisms to do our bidding for malign purposes by manipulating brain functions, compromising bioregulation, and even by altering our reproductive capabilities. Complicating matters further, more groups and more individuals possess these high-consequence technologies than in the past--and more and more people will acquire them in the future. The emergence of nanotechnology--manufacturing at the molecular or atomic level--presents similar concerns, especially if coupled with chemical and biological weapons, explosives, or missiles. Such combinations could result in highly destructive missiles the size of an insect and microscopic delivery systems for dangerous pathogens.

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