Doomsday Clock stalls at two minutes to midnight ― but global threats increase

Heightened tensions between nuclear powers and inaction on climate change are the “new abnormal”, says the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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A 34-kiloton blast conducted by France at Mururoa Atoll

A 1971 nuclear test at Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia.Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty

The world is as close to annihilation as it was last year, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The hands of the organization’s Doomsday Clock will stay at two minutes to midnight, it said, warning that the lack of progress on a host of global threats is a “new abnormal”.

Stalled progress on addressing nuclear threats, lack of action on climate change and a worsening cybersecurity and cyberwarfare situation are of particular concern, the group said.

This is the third time in the Bulletin’s history that the clock has been set so close to a global catastrophe, said Rachel Bronson, president and executive director of the organization, at a press conference in Washington DC on 24 January. The first came in 1953 at the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and the United States were testing their thermonuclear bombs. The second occurred in January 2018, when the group adjusted the clock’s hands after news of North Korea’s nuclear tests and as a result of increasing concerns over climate threats.

“The fact that the clock did not change is bad news indeed,” said Robert Rosner, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. “Where we are is very close to disaster.”

Actions of humanity

Cyberattacks aimed at sabotaging computer networks, and the manipulation of social media by people practicing information warfare have polarized populations and undermined trust in science, said Herb Lin, a cybersecurity and policy researcher at Stanford University in California and a member of the Bulletin’s group on cyber and disruptive technologies.

“These practices attack the very idea of rational discourse,” said Lin. “It’s a more insidious use of cyber tools to exploit weaknesses in human cognition and thinking.”

The group also noted that Russia, China and the United States have stopped talking to each other on arms issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. And US plans to build up its arsenal of nuclear weapons could lead to another arms race, said Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear security and policy researcher at the George Washington University in Washington DC, and a member of the Bulletin’s group on nuclear risk.

“Gross negligence”

Efforts to combat the effects of climate change have also worsened over the past year. Nations aren’t reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions fast enough to meet their goals under the Paris climate agreement. And in some cases, including in the United States and certain European Union countries, emissions increased in 2018 over previous years.

“Our failure to stop the rise of our own emissions is simply an act of gross negligence,” said Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “The new abnormal climate that we already have is extremely dangerous, and we move into a path that will make our future much more dangerous still.”

Because the symbolic Doomsday Clock doesn’t run on batteries, but on the actions of humanity, a scenario in which the world moves away from these looming threats is possible. “If this provides an opportunity to talk about them, then the clock continues to do its job,” said Bronson.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00274-y

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