Citing the worsening nuclear threat and inaction on the climate crisis, scientists issue a historic warning about the risk of global catastrophe.
“The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to come together—to unite and to act.”
“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.”
—Bulletin of Atomic Scientist
So said Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders, in a statement from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on Thursday announcing a historic update to the clock, a decades-old symbol for potential global catastrophe.
Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights, urged world leaders “to join us in 2020 as we work to pull humanity back from the brink.”
After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Bulletin was founded by University of Chicago scientists who had been involved with the Manhattan Project. Two years later, the group introduced the Doomsday Clock, set at seven minutes to midnight. Midnight represented potential apocalypse based on global nuclear dangers—the closer the hands are to midnight, the higher the threat.
Since 1947, the clock’s hands have moved both closer to and further from midnight, reaching 17 minutes to midnight in 1991. In 2018, the hands hit two minutes to midnight for the first time since 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear weapons. Last year, the clock stayed there, and Bulletin president and CEO Rachel Bronson welcomed the world to “the new abnormal.”
For more than a decade, the Doomsday Clock’s setting has reflected the threat posed by nuclear weaponry as well as the human-caused climate crisis. The 2020 statement explained that “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.”
The #DoomsdayClock has been set at 100 seconds to midnight—closer than ever before to apocalypse.
— The University of Chicago (@UChicago) January 23, 2020
“It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds—not hours, or even minutes,” Bronson said Thursday. “It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency—an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”
Along with highlighting growing concerns about how “sophisticated, technology-propelled propaganda” is undermining global efforts to address the two key existential threats, this year’s statement slammed world leaders for “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.”
As the Bulletin put it:
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.
Referencing “the new abnormal” introduced last year, the 2020 statement warned, “This dangerous situation remains—and continues to deteriorate.” The Bulletin declared that “the need for emergency action is urgent.” On the nuclear front, global leaders were urged to reinstate treaties, cut countries’ arsenals, limit modernization programs, and “start talks on cyber warfare, missile defenses, the militarization of space, hypersonic technology, and the elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.”
“As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, it is inevitable that they will one day be used, whether by accident, miscalculation or design,” —Mary Robinson, Chair of @TheElders, former President of Ireland#DoomsdayClock pic.twitter.com/IzHZDRFvOs
— Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (@BulletinAtomic) January 23, 2020
More generally, the Bulletin called for “multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that discourage and penalize the misuse of science,” emphasizing that “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.”
In terms of climate action, the Bulletin urged all countries remain committed to the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. The statement noted that meeting the goals of that accord will require industrialized countries “to curb emissions rapidly, going beyond their initial, inadequate pledges and supporting developing countries so they can leapfrog the entrenched, fossil fuel-intensive patterns.”
While the Bulletin broadly encouraged citizens across the globe to pressure their governments to pursue bold policies to avert climate catastrophe, it drew specific attention to the United States, pointing out that in November 2019, President Donald Trump fulfilled his longtime promise to begin the lengthy process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement.
During a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the Doomsday Clock update Thursday, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed disappointment in global leaders for failing to address these two crises. Ban, now deputy chair of The Elders, warned of the dangers of isolationist policies but also framed the clock’s shift as an opportunity for policymakers worldwide to recommit to multilateralism.
“At a time when world leaders should be focused on…nuclear escalation & the climate emergency, we are instead witnessing denial, disregard & dangerous brinkmanship,” — Ban Ki-moon, Deputy Chair of @TheElders, former UN Secretary-General #DoomsdayClockhttps://t.co/On5ctRjelk pic.twitter.com/FOK1BO3o5o
— Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (@BulletinAtomic) January 23, 2020
Jerry Brown, the current executive chair of the Bulletin, also spoke at the press conference Thursday. He criticized Trump for delivering a speech—at the World Economic Forum’s summit for the global elite in Davos, Switzerland—that called for rejecting “alarmists” and “perennial prophets of doom,” along with their “predictions of the apocalypse.”
Brown, a former Democratic governor of California, also said that U.S. politicians from both major parties have not adequately worked to combat the nuclear and climate threats, and decried “vast, deep, and pervasive complacency” on a societal level.
After summarizing the Bulletin’s warnings in a statement Thursday, Brown concluded: “If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”
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