Nuclear bomb test in Nevada desert

A 1957 nuclear test in Nevada.Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty

The end of the world is as close as it’s ever been. That’s according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has advanced its Doomsday Clock to two minutes until midnight.

The only other time the clock — a symbolic measure of humanity's risk of self-destruction — came so close to the apocalypse was at the height of the Cold War, in 1953. Back then, the Bulletin adjusted the clock after the Soviet Union and the United States tested their nuclear weapons within nine months of each other. This year’s decision to push the clock’s hands closer to midnight stems from growing nuclear threats and unchecked climate dangers, said Rachel Bronson, president and chief executive of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, at a press conference in Washington DC on 25 January.

The security situation of our planet is “as dangerous as it has been since World War II”, the Bulletin said in a statement. It cited tensions in the South China Sea over US naval operations, the strained relationship between Pakistan and India, US–Russian military entanglements, and recklessness in nuclear rhetoric from certain world leaders. The clock’s reset also stems from concerns that weapons of mass destruction might be used “intentionally or because of miscalculation”, according to the Bulletin’s board of directors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates.

Closer to catastrophe

North Korea accelerated its nuclear- and ballistic-missile tests last year, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. And “provocative” statements by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have made the nuclear risk “greater than necessary”, said Robert Rosner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.

Moreover, the United States and Russia aren’t discussing how to deal with their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, said Sharon Squassoni, a security-policy researcher at the George Washington University in Washington DC. And although US President Donald Trump opposed the Iran nuclear deal — which his predecessor and US allies had negotiated to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons — he “did not offer a single viable alternative”, she said.

Climate change, too, is contributing to the planet’s progression towards catastrophe. Last year’s record-high temperatures across the globe, the devastating wildfires in the United States — probably exacerbated by drought — and the thinning of the ice caps all indicate humanity’s failure to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, said Sivan Kartha, a climate researcher at the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

But despite the US government’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the Bulletin’s board was pleased to see other countries reaffirm their commitment to addressing climate change. “If world leaders respect science and make rational choices, there’s room for hope,” Kartha said.

Cyber risks are another challenge for an increasingly tech-savvy world. The abuse of information technology has promoted “a loss of trust in political institutions, media, science and facts”, said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe. The international community needs to develop tools for combating fake news, as well as mechanisms for controlling cyber weapons, such as a computer system that can make decisions without human supervision, he said.

Taking action

But there is hope. Although the Doomsday Clock has been reset 23 times since its establishment in 1947, its hands haven’t always moved forward. In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, the Bulletin’s board pushed the clock’s hands back to 17 minutes to midnight.

That’s why board members recommended a series of actions that could help the world to move away from destruction. They included the cessation of North Korea’s missile tests, an agreement on the Iran nuclear deal and increased global efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Bulletin also called on Trump to avoid provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea, and invited US citizens to demand climate action from their government. People need to take the lead, Squassoni said — the future is in their hands.