Two major threats to human civilisation – nuclear war and climate change – amplified by information warfare undercutting society’s ability to respond, have moved the Doomsday Clock this year to 100 seconds to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock was created by atomic scientists in 1947 as a way of conveying to leaders and citizens of the world existential threats to humanity and the planet, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero).
The decision to move, or to leave in place, the minute hand of the Clock is made every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates.
The clock has never been closer to midnight. It reached the same setting in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons.
This year’s setting is not just because of the existential threats that exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.
The following is excerpted from the 2020 statement made in Chicago on 23 January:
In the nuclear realm, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.
Public awareness of the climate crisis grew over the course of 2019, largely because of mass protests by young people around the world. Just the same, governmental action on climate change still falls far short of meeting the challenge at hand. At UN climate meetings last year, national delegates made fine speeches but put forward few concrete plans to further limit the carbon dioxide emissions that are disrupting Earth’s climate. This limited political response came during a year when the effects of manmade climate change were manifested by one of the warmest years on record, extensive wildfires, and quicker-than-expected melting of glacial ice.
Continued corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision making depend has heightened the nuclear and climate threats. In the last year, many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations, undermining domestic and international efforts to foster peace and protect the planet.
This situation—two major threats to human civilization, amplified by sophisticated, technology-propelled propaganda—would be serious enough if leaders around the world were focused on managing the danger and reducing the risk of catastrophe.
Right: Jerry Brown, former California Governor and executive chair of the Bulletin, joined for the Doomsday Clock announcement by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Ban Ki-moon, former South Korean Foreign Minister and former UN Secretary-General.
Instead, over the last two years, we have seen influential leaders denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats—international agreements with strong verification regimes—in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain. By undermining cooperative, science- and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity, these leaders have helped to create a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later.
Faced with this daunting threat landscape and a new willingness of political leaders to reject the negotiations and institutions that can protect civilization over the long term, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board today moves the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight—closer to apocalypse than ever. In so doing, board members are explicitly warning leaders and citizens around the world that the international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War.
How the world should respond
Global leaders are not responding appropriately to reduce this threat level and counteract the hollowing-out of international political institutions, negotiations, and agreements that aim to contain it. The result is a heightened and growing risk of disaster.
There are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take—and citizens should demand—to improve the current, absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs. Among them:
US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to: reinstate the INF Treaty or take other action to restrain an unnecessary arms race in medium-range missiles; extend the limits of New START beyond 2021; seek further reductions in nuclear arms; discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.
The countries of the world should publicly rededicate themselves to the temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement, which is restricting warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius higher than the preindustrial level. That goal is consistent with consensus views on climate science, and, notwithstanding the inadequate climate action to date, it may well remain within reach if major changes in the worldwide energy system and land use are undertaken promptly.
If that goal is to be attained, industrialized countries will need to curb emissions rapidly, going beyond their initial, inadequate pledges and supporting developing countries so they can leapfrog the entrenched, fossil fuel-intensive patterns previously pursued by industrialized countries.
The international community should begin multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that discourage and penalize the misuse of science. Science provides the world’s searchlight in times of fog and confusion. Furthermore, focused attention is needed to prevent information technology from undermining public trust in political institutions, in the media, and in the existence of objective reality itself.
Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns—and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy—are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers.
The global security situation is unsustainable and extremely dangerous, but that situation can be improved, if leaders seek change and citizens demand it. There is no reason the Doomsday Clock cannot move away from midnight. It has done so in the past when wise leaders acted, under pressure from informed and engaged citizens around the world. We believe that mass civic engagement will be necessary to compel the change the world needs.
Citizens around the world have the power to unmask social media disinformation and improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand—through public protest, at the ballot box, and in many other creative ways—that their leaders take immediate steps to reduce the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. It is now 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to unite—and act.
The full statement can be read here.
– excerpt prepared by Kieran Finnane