08 July 2009

Is it still five minutes to midnight?

The last time the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the Doomsday Clock was on January 17th, 2007. As a result of North Korea's testing a nuclear weapon, Iran being suspected of nuclear ambitions, the renewal of American emphasis on nuclear weaponry, and the continued presence of the U.S. and Russia's 26,000 nuclear weapons, and the addition of climate change as a threat to humanity, the scientists set the clock ahead two minutes to five minutes before midnight, the metaphorical moment of humanity's catastrophic destruction.

Perhaps a recent development will lead the scientists to set the clock back a few seconds. Russia and the United States, who between them have 95 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, signed an agreement on Monday to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by at least one-quarter. This is intended to be a first step toward drastically reducing the threat of such weapons and preventing their spread to unstable regions. The agreement sets the stage for a treaty that will reduce the number of warheads and missiles to the lowest levels since early in the cold war.

President Obama considers the spread of nuclear weapons an urgent issue, "one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership” he has said, adding, “It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way.” He is of course perfectly right, particularly keeping in mind that under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty the two countries are obligated to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

This is a small step with a long, long way to go, but it is at least progress. It should be worth a second or two off the clock.

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