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Countdown to the Apocalypse: Scientists Change Doomsday Clock

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The Doomsday Clock is shown in 1998. (AP)

The end of the world may be drawing a bit closer.

Scientists on Wednesday changed the time on Chicago’s Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight, or the apocalypse, based on what they said is the “most perilous period since Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” during dual announcements in London and Washington, D.C.

"We foresee great peril if governments and societies don’t take action now” to offset climate change, said astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who has warned that the survival of the human race depends on its ability to colonize space because of the increasing risk that a disaster will destroy the Earth.

“It is now five to midnight,” he said of the clock, which was introduced in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to assess the threat of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War.

The scientists said to avoid disaster, we must reduce the “launch readiness” of the United States and Russia – 2,000 of their 27,000 nuclear weapons are able to launch within minutes — remove nuclear weapons from day-to-day military operations and stop production of nuclear weapons material such as highly enriched plutonium and uranium.

As for global warming, “Through flooding and desertification, climate change threatens the habitats and agricultural resources that societies depend upon for survival. As such, climate change is also likely to contribute to mass migrations and even to wars over arable land, water and other natural resources,” Bulletin scientists said in a statement.

The group specifically singled out Iran and North Korea as examples of the threat posed by countries striving for nuclear technology.

"North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions ... the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials ... are symptomatic of a failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth," the scientists said.

Click here to visit the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Web site.

The decision to move the clock forward reflects "growing concerns" about a “second nuclear age."

“This change reflects global failures” to combat nuclear threats and global warming, said Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin's executive director.

In addressing the threat posed by the use of a nuclear weapon, she said: "The damage that it would create would be civilization-ending.”

“As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and at the onset of unprecedented climate change, our way of thinking about the uses and control of technologies must change to prevent unspeakable destruction and future human suffering,” she said.

Click here to read a Bulletin article detailing the threats (pdf).

There is a “great possibility that the earth in 2100 will only dimly resemble” what it looks like today, said Lawrence M. Krauss, professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University.

“Science may have changed the world … but it hasn’t changed the way people think about the world,” he said, pointing to Albert Einstein's belief that we must change our way of thinking if we want to survive.

We must “seek new approaches to address these threats,” Krauss said.

In defining the second nuclear era, the scientists pointed to “porous national borders, rapid communications that facilitate the spread of technical knowledge and expanded commerce in potentially dangerous dual-use technologies and materials."

In addition, there needs to be an improved nuclear inspection agency under the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep countries in check, said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a BAS director and co-chair of the International Crisis Group.

"For example, through vigorous diplomacy and international agencies like the [IAEA], we can negotiate and implement agreements that could protect us all from the most destructive technology on Earth — nuclear weapons," he said.

In warning about “runaway climactic or environmental devastation” Sir Martin Rees warned, "There is now more chance than ever of a few nuclear weapons going off in a … conflict.”

Rees is president of The Royal Society and professor of cosmology and astrophysics and master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.

“As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change,” said Hawking, who recently made headlines after announcing his plans to tour space in 2009 aboard one of Richard Branson's planned Virgin Galactica space flights.

University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were concerned about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war formed the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1945. In 1947, members unveiled the clock as a simple model for showing the threats posed by nuclear weapons.

Wednesday's "time" change is the 18th since 1947, the most recent before Wednesday's update being in 2002 following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.