The Doomsday Clock struck two and a half minutes to annihilation today, the closest it has ever been since 1953 when the US armed up with hydrogen bombs.
The Doomsday Clock was set up by a group of Manhattan Project researchers who were basically working on world-ending weapons back in 1947. It was a nifty way to keep track of how close humanity threaded to a nuclear Armageddon. Over time, the clock also came to take into account other humanity-busting factors, such as climate change, advances in artificial intelligence, or dangerous pursuits in biotechnology.
Last month, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — who is in charge of setting the ‘time’ — suggested that Doomsday was closer than the clock revealed and it was to be reset. Which happened today.
The hand now points 2 and a half minutes to midnight — 30 seconds closer than it has ever been since the height of the Cold War.
Their initial statement listed “tensions between the United States and Russia […] at levels reminiscent of the Cold War, […] climate change, and nuclear proliferation concerns” as the main reasons behind the change. In a statement issued last week, the Bulletin further explained their decision, as well as citing the accomplishments of r
eality show star US President Donald Trump in setting the time.
“A rise in strident nationalism worldwide, President Donald Trump’s comments on nuclear arms and climate issues, a darkening global security landscape that is colored by increasingly sophisticated technology, and a growing disregard for scientific expertise,” were among these reasons it states.
“The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days.”
Minute changes with huge implications
So just how bad is the current situation? Let’s get some context.
The time throughout time.
1947 — The clock is set at 7′ to midnight with the advent of nuclear weapons in the USA.
1949 — As Russia tests its own bomb, the clock ticks 3′ to midnight.
1953 — Russia and the US both detonate nukes within 9 months of one another. 2′ to go gang! This is the closest the clock ever got to 00:00.
1960 — A global sigh of relief is sighed as the US and Russia back down from political hot-spots, start cooperating, and even allow scientific discourse between their researchers. The clock is drawn back to 7′.
1963 — Signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which limits atmospheric nuclear weapon testing. 12′ now.
1968 — China and France test their own nukes. The US commits to the Vietnam War. Both take the clock up to 7′.
1969 — Almost everyone signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, and the clock goes back down to 10′.
1972 — The clock eases back to 12′ after Russia and the US agree to freeze the number of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles under the SALT I and ABM treaties.
1974 — Tensions rise to 9′ as further disarmament talks (SALT II) grind to a halt, missile development continues, and India tests its first nuclear weapon (the Smiling Buddha).
1980 — The Soviet-Afghan War begins. USA rejects SALT II. 7′.
1981-1984 — Animosity increases between the NATO and Soviet blocks, Ronald Reagan restarts the arms race. The clock ticks 3′ to midnight.
1988-1991 — Things start looking up with further disarmament treaties, the fall of the Iron Curtain, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. It’s now 17′ to midnight and it’s as good as it’s ever gonna get.
1995-2007 — Like a bad hangover after a good time, the clock ups up to 5′. Military spending continues at Cold War levels, nuclear material and know-how disseminates from the former Soviet block and more countries test their own nukes. The US refuses further arms control treaties and announces its intention of restarting ballistic missile development. Climate change is added as a factor for the clock in 2007.
2010 — Not a bad year. One more minute added to the clock brings it to 6′. Presidents Obama and Medvedev ratify further arms reduction treaties, and the first COP takes place in Copenhagen.
2012-2017 — Bad. Repeated failure to address climate change on the part of governments, lousy tracking of the global weapon stockpile, further development of nuclear weapons, growing nuclear waste, and finally the arguments of today’s change, bring us up to 2’30”.
So we’re somewhere between official nuclear war and low-key nuclear war. Awesome.
Running out of time
In their 2016 statement, the scientists winding the clock said:
“Three minutes is too close. Far too close. We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016.”
“That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.”
“When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilisation and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.”
This year’s statement took a bird’s eye view of the problems humanity has to tackle, and made one of its most stringent points on the issue of climate change and political-scientific disengagement. The text sadly also betrayed a much darker, and a much more urgent, tone.
“[We are] extremely concerned about the willingness of governments around the world — including the incoming US administration — to ignore or discount sound science and considered expertise during their decision-making processes.”
“It is well past time to move beyond arguments over the reality of climate change and on to solutions, including fiscal measures — such as carbon markets and carbon taxes or fees — that encourage efficiency and put a price on carbon emissions.”
“Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
So don’t run for the shelter just yet. We’ve still got two and a half minutes left. It’s cutting it awfully close, but we can still try to set things right in that time. So to officials, researchers, industry men and women, anyone out there: let’s put another hand on that clock. Make it 62,5′ to midnight. Then 122,5′.
Let’s add so much time to it, we turn the Doomsday clock into the Doomsday Calendar, then keep plastering so many pages on that baby it becomes a big, beautiful, physical wall of Doomsday Calendar pages we’ll never go through.
I bet that’s a wall Mexico would love to pay for.