The clock originally took into account only the threat that nuclear weapons posed for mass extinction. But years ago the Bulletin's editors made an addition to express scientists' concerns that it's not only nukes that could fry the planet. The clock now:
... 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 that could inflict irrevocable harm.This year, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, “in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates,” took another step and wrote a letter to President Obama expressing its continuing worries about nuclear weapons, fissile materials and cyber-threats, but also focusing a good deal of attention on global warming. Here's an excerpt:
Climate change. Human activities are now the dominant cause of global climate change. Emissions of heat-trapping gases continued to climb in 2012, with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide—the most important greenhouse gas affected by human activities—reaching levels higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years. 2012 was the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States. Arctic sea ice continued to rapidly diminish in extent, reaching a record low this past year that fell under the previous low by an area the size of Texas. Glaciers are retreating, and the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass. Extreme weather events, such as last year's Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Bopha, now strike in an environment altered by climate change, with higher sea surface temperatures and more water vapor in the atmosphere to fuel and sustain their destructive power.We already know that the fifth IPCC assessment will, as was the case with the previous assessments, understate the climate-change situation. Scientists are, by nature, conservative in the sense of cautious. So it is no surprise that the assessment will once again fall short of telling us what's happening and what is likely to happen in the not too distant future. Events are outpacing data.
But 2012 also provided further evidence of the viability of renewable sources of energy and more efficient ways of powering the global economy, pointing toward an alternative to the high-carbon development model. Wind and solar power, for example, expanded at rates greatly exceeding what energy agencies forecasted earlier this decade. Owing to supportive policies, power generation from these sources expanded nearly fourfold over the past five years in the United States, and even more so in other countries, including Germany and China, where there they enjoyed stronger support. The new US automobile fuel economy standard was another welcome development, promising nearly a doubling of vehicle efficiency by 2025.
This trend, while encouraging, is by no means evidence that the climate challenge has been met. In fact, the growth in low-carbon energy sources is dwarfed by the continued expansion of fossil fuels like coal—as was exemplified last year by the explosive development of unconventional fossil resources, such as tar sands, oil shale, and shale gas. With life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions that are even worse than their conventional counterparts, these unconventional fossil resources threaten to crowd out investment in renewables and to entrench a long-term dependency on carbon-intensive energy supplies.
Avoiding this scenario will require your administration to considerably speed the process of reforming the patchwork of federal subsidies, taxes, and other incentives and disincentives that distort energy markets. We look forward to substantial progress toward rational energy markets in 2013, including the pricing of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.
2012 saw the arrival of an apparently abundant domestic natural gas resource, which could be an important contributor to a more environmentally sound energy future. We call on your administration to see that commercialization of this resource is pursued in ways that mitigate its environmental impacts, including its climate change impacts. Specifically, we urge you to create strong regulations for gas developers to minimize methane leakage and safeguard water resources, and for power-plant developers to incorporate carbon dioxide capture and storage.
Mr. President, you have taken some steps to help nudge the country along a more rational energy path. You kept alive the incentives for wind and other renewable power, and you strengthened vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. These are important steps, but without a concerted effort to launch a comprehensive and ambitious response to the climate challenge in 2013, we face diminishing prospects for averting the worst and most costly effects of a disrupted climate.
Since your re-election, you have noted with concern that the Earth is warming and the Arctic ice cap is melting even faster than scientists had predicted, while extraordinary weather events—from storms to droughts—are taking their toll in the United States and around the world. You also stressed that we have an obligation to future generations to do something about climate change, and you promised that this would be a priority of your administration.In September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish its fifth assessment of climate science, which will authoritatively document the changing climate. We call on you to commit your administration to firmly accept the panel's scientific findings, urgently integrate these findings into national policy, and confidently face those who irresponsibly argue that climate change science is not relevant.
That caution, and a desire not to sound as if their hair is on fire, also probably accounts for the tone of the Bulletin's scientists' letter to the president. We get the sense that the problem is serious, but the alarm bells seem profoundly muffled, even with that clock set so close to apocalypse.
This, in fact, is pretty much how the administration, not to mention a large percentage of progressives, have dealt with the matter.
Yes, global warming is happening and it's human-caused, it is admitted both at the White House and among most progressives. But the fierce urgency of now has gone missing. Too many people—elected, appointed and rank-and-file—have adopted a point of view that climate scientists are telling us is off-kilter. Global warming isn't a tomorrow phenomenon. It's happening today and the devastation it causes will be worse every minute that action is postponed. The longer the wait, the more draconian the response must be if we are going to successfully adapt to changes that can no longer be stopped as well as prevent those that can.
Delay is denial.