One is the possibility of nuclear war − even a limited one. The other is climate change, which the scientists say “looms over all of humanity”. Either means that “the probability of global catastrophe is very high” without urgent action.
The warning comes from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ science and security board, which has moved the hands of the historic Doomsday Clock forward two minutes. They now stand at three minutes to midnight.
The board says in a statement: “In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required. . .
“These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”
The statement says: “The board feels compelled to add, with a sense of great urgency: ‘The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.’”
The Doomsday Clock symbolises how close humanity has come to the apocalyptic danger of mass destruction by nuclear weapons, climate change, and emergent technologies.
The clock’s minute hand stood at two minutes before midnight in 1953, and at 17 minutes before midnight in 1991, after the end of the Cold War. The last time it was just three minutes to midnight was 1983, when “US-Soviet relations were at their iciest”, according to the Bulletin.
Sivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin’s science and security board and a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said: “Steps seen as bold in light of today’s extremely daunting political opposition to climate action do not even match the expectations of five years ago, to say nothing of the scientific necessity.
“Global greenhouse gas emission rates are now 50% higher than they were in 1990. Emission rates have risen since 2000 by more than in the previous three decades combined. Investments have continued to pour into fossil fuel infrastructure at a rate that exceeds $1 trillion per year, with additional hundreds of billions of dollars in continued fossil fuel subsidies.”
Sharon Squassoni, another board member and director of the Proliferation Prevention Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Since the end of the Cold War, there has been cautious optimism about the ability of nuclear weapon states to keep the nuclear arms race in check and to walk back slowly from the precipice of nuclear destruction.
“That optimism has essentially evaporated in the face of two trends: sweeping nuclear weapons modernisation programmes and a disarmament machinery that has ground to a halt.
“Although the United States and Russia no longer have the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons they had during the Cold War, the pace of reduction has slowed dramatically in recent years, well before the crisis in Crimea. From 2009 to 2013, the Obama administration cut only 309 warheads from the stockpile.”
Richard Somerville, a board member and research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, said: “Efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption. . . This threat looms over all of humanity. We all need to respond now, while there is still time.”
The board urges action to be taken to cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels that that would keep average global temperature from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is the internationally-agreed limit, which will form the basis of the global agreement that climate negotiators hope to reach at UN talks in Paris in December.
The board also urges sharply reduced planned spending on nuclear weapons modernisation, a revitalised disarmament process, and immediate action to deal with nuclear waste.
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