Science Policy & Funding News

Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

The dual threats of nuclear warfare and climate change move the needle to 100 seconds to midnight.

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The symbolic doomsday clock moved closer to midnight than it has ever been, just 100 seconds away, because of the urgent threats of nuclear warfare and climate change, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced today, 23 January.

“Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” according to a statement released by the Bulletin to world leaders and the public. “The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

“The current environment is profoundly unstable, and urgent action and immediate engagement is required by all,” Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C. She and others urged world leaders to take bold actions to lower the risks of nuclear war and climate change.

The clock, which was created in 1947, had been set at 2 minutes before midnight for the past 2 years.

Bronson said that both nuclear and climate conditions are worsening. “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 interest and domestic political game,” she said.

“By undermining cooperative science and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity, leaders have helped to create a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe sooner rather than later,” Bronson added.

“Denial, Disregard, and Dangerous Brinksmanship”

At the briefing, former United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “At a time when world leaders should be focused on the clear and present dangers of nuclear escalation and the climate emergency, climate crisis, we are instead witnessing denial, disregard, and dangerous brinksmanship.”

Other speakers also decried the growing global threats and inaction by world leaders.

“A few degrees might not sound like anything to worry about, much less like an emergency,” said Sivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin’s science and security board and a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

However, he added that if Earth warms by just a few degrees, it could be dire news for humanity. “We have no reason to be confident that such a world will remain hospitable to human civilization. To test the limits of Earth’s habitable temperature is madness. It’s a madness akin to the nuclear madness that is again threatening the world,” he said.

Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin’s science and security board, said that the clock’s closer approach to midnight “signals really bad news indeed.”

Rosner, a theoretical physicist on the faculty of the University of Chicago, said that a particular concern is “the undermining of the public’s ability to sort out what’s true from what’s patently false by information warfare, subverting our ability to arrive at a consensus on the solutions needed to achieve positive change.”

Rosner and others expressed hope that there is still time to reverse course. “Past experience has taught us even during the most dismal periods of the Cold War, we can as a people come together to address our challenges. It is now high time to do so again,” Rosner said.

“The World Needs to Wake Up”

“We are now 100 seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up,” said former president of Ireland Mary Robinson. She pointed to student activists and many others who are taking action on climate change as inspirational. “We need a change of mindset in politics, business, and civil society, one that enables us to keep temperature rises at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius while protecting the rights, dignity, and livelihoods of those affected by the shift to a carbon neutral economy. Not to do so will be a death sentence for humanity. And yet, world leaders continue to ignore the science, international climate summits fail to reach agreement, and investment in the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels continues to increase.”

Former California governor Jerry Brown, executive chair of the Bulletin, added that there is still time to change course. “We’re not there yet. The world is not over. We have incredible opportunity to reverse the nuclear arms race, the carbon emissions and the headlong rush to ever more dangerous technology. It’s within human hands,” he said.

“This is the moment if there ever was to wake up,” Brown added. “We can still pull back from the brink. But we have to do what we’re not doing. Whatever we’ve done to date is totally inadequate on nuclear, on climate, and on the other dangerous technologies, we have to find a way to do more. We have to change the design of how we’re behaving.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2020), Doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO139173. Published on 23 January 2020.
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