Doomsday Clock Now Closest It’s Ever Been to Midnight

Doomsday Clock
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says it’s 90 seconds to midnight, a time of unprecedented danger. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) has moved the second hand on its Doomsday Clock forward to just 90 seconds to midnight. That makes it now the closest the clock has ever been to midnight since the BAS has been tracking in its 76-year history.

At its annual announcement Jan. 24, 2023, the group said it made its decision, not only because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine, but also because of the increased risk of nuclear escalation. The time, which the BAS says is “a time of unprecedented danger,” was also influenced by the climate crisis, the breakdown of global norms and other threats such as COVID-19.

“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” Rachel Bronson, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a statement. “Ninety seconds to midnight is the closest the clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly. The U.S. government, its NATO allies and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore all of them to their fullest ability to turn back the clock.”

What Is the Doomsday Clock?

intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
The Atomic Bulletin of Scientists cites incidents like North Korea’s test-firing of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as one of many reason it moved the clock forward. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Doomsday Clock was founded in 1947 by University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and is known globally as a gauge of how close the world could be to the apocalypse. It is designed to warn the public about how close we are to destroying the world in which we live.

The clock is a metaphor that has become universally recognized for conveying threats to humanity and the planet. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board sets the time every year as a warning to the public.

“The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity. We are on the brink of a precipice,” Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement. “But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and livable planet. From cutting carbon emissions to strengthening arms control treaties and investing in pandemic preparedness, we know what needs to be done. The science is clear, but the political will is lacking. This must change in 2023 if we are to avert catastrophe. We are facing multiple, existential crises. Leaders need a crisis mindset.”

The Bulletin didn’t move change the time on the Doomsday Clock in 2021 or 2022, it but did move the minute hand forward in 2020 by 20 seconds, from two minutes before midnight to 100 seconds before midnight.

The closest to midnight the clock has been before then was in 1953 when it was two minutes before midnight. The decision to move it so close was made after both the United States and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs and were engaged in a nuclear arms race.

From 2015 to 2016, the minute hand stayed at three minutes before midnight, the closest it had been through the early ’80s. In 2017, however, the BAS moved the second hand forward 30 seconds to 11:57 and 30 seconds because of nuclear weapons and climate change, and as trusted sources of information came under attack.

Why We’re Closer Than Ever to Global Catastrophe

monkeypox
The rise in viral zoonoses (viruses transmitted to humans from animals) like monkeypox also was one reason for the prompting of the time change in 2023. NurPhoto via Getty Images

This year’s change in the Doomsday Clock time is unprecedented. For two years it’s stayed at 100 minutes to midnight, but this shift brings the clock closest to global catastrophe for many reasons, including threats that go beyond the risks related to the Russia-Ukraine War.

The War in Ukraine

  1. Russia’s war on Ukraine has eroded norms of international conduct.
  2. Russia’s continues to threaten to use nuclear weapons.
  3. There is a possibility that the conflict could spin out control.

Nuclear Weapons

  1. START, the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States expires in 2026.
  2. China continues to expand its nuclear capabilities.
  3. North Korea has stepped up its intermediate and longer-range missile testing. U.S. officials insist North Korea is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear weapon test.
  4. Iran continues to increase its uranium enrichment capacity.

Climate Crisis and Bio Threats

  1. Global carbon dioxide emissions hit another all-time-high in 2022.
  2. Weather extremes continue to pound the globe, and are more attributable to climate change.
  3. Extreme floods and drought have caused poor harvests, undermining global food security.
  4. The number and diversity of infectious disease outbreaks has increased significantly since 1980.
  5. More than half of infectious disease outbreaks are caused by zoonotic diseases that put the human population at risk for pandemics.
  6. Laboratory accidents continue to occur, and it’s also easier now than ever to obtain and modify pathogens, increasing the likelihood of more pandemics.
  7. The risk that Russia will engage in biological warfare increases as conditions in Ukraine become more chaotic.

The 2023 statement by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor John Mecklin, reads, in part:

There is no clear pathway for forging a just peace that discourages future aggression under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But at a minimum, the United States must keep the door open to principled engagement with Moscow that reduces the dangerous increase in nuclear risk the war has fostered. One element of risk reduction could involve sustained, high-level U.S. military-to-military contacts with Russia to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation. The U.S. government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; they all should be explored. Finding a path to serious peace negotiations could go a long way toward reducing the risk of escalation. In this time of unprecedented global danger, concerted action is required, and every second counts.

Since the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which currently boasts 10 Nobel laureates among its leaders, was founded, it has moved the hand on the clock 25 times. Each move symbolizes the group’s current analysis of the world’s chances of survival in the face of political, environmental and technological developments. The most notable factors to the keepers of the clock are the state of nuclear affairs and global climate change.

But all is not lost. See The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ website to read about some of the BAS-recommended changes the world must make to move the Doomsday Clock back.

Originally Published: Jan 25, 2018

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