Minutes to Midnight: The Race Against the Doomsday Clock

On January 26, 2017, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the legendary Doomsday Clock, moving it forward by 30 seconds. It now rests at two and a half minutes to midnight.


In 1945, Manhattan Project scientists refused to turn a blind eye to the consequences of their work and founded The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Now an independent nonprofit organization, The Bulletin is a network of members and experts from around the globe. It is maintained by The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which is counseled by the Governing Board of Sponsors, currently including 15 Nobel laureates. Among the overseers, sponsors and consultants are many of the world’s leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Susan Solomon, Lisa Randall, and Freeman Dyson.


In 1947, The Bulletin unveiled the Doomsday Clock; a visual representation of how close humankind is to destroying civilization. At the time, nuclear weapons were the only known technology with the power to end humanity. Since 2007, however, the Doomsday Clock has also come to reflect scientific assessments of critical issues, like the disastrous potential of climate change exacerbated by human activity, biotechnology, and other emerging technologies and modern threats, like gene-editing tools that will make biological weapons easier to produce. It now represents any existential threat that could significantly devastate modern civilization.


The Doomsday Clock is ultimately symbolic. Its objective has always been to engage leaders, policy makers, the scientific community, and the public on “topics of nuclear weapons and disarmament, the changing energy landscape, climate change and emerging technologies.” Midnight represents the apocalypse or existential catastrophe, and the minute hand is a countdown to zero, where civilization will be destroyed or devastated past the point of no return. It implies that humanity is in a race against time to save itself, and gives an indication of how far we are from the brink.


Since its inception, the Clock has moved ahead 19 times, but before now it has only been closer to midnight once in its 70 years. In 1953 the Clock was set to two minutes to midnight after the United States resolved to pursue the hydrogen bomb, a more powerful weapon than the atomic bomb. They tested the first thermonuclear device, obliterating a Pacific Ocean islet, and nine months later, the Soviet Union also tested its first H-bomb.


The Bulletin attributes the latest worrying shift from three to two and a half minutes primarily to U.S. President Donald Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also deems the leaders of Pakistan and North Korea major concerns. President Trump has indicated his desire for America to “strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such times as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Russia and the U.S. together possess over 90 percent of nuclear weapons on the planet, and their relations are increasingly volatile and at odds.


Over the course of 2016, serious international dialogues about arms control were not established, North Korea conducted several underground nuclear tests, and India and Pakistan have threatened nuclear warfare. In December, the defence minister of Pakistan mistook a fake news story about Israel as fact, and tweeted a public promise of nuclear retaliation. Rachel Bronson, Executive Director and Publisher of The Bulletin exposes the “cavalier and reckless language used across the globe, especially in the United States… around nuclear weapon and nuclear threats” as a grave concern for the scientific community.


It is not solely the dangers of modernizing and increasing nuclear capabilities that have concerned The Bulletin. Bronson notes that, “over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened, as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.” Climate change denial by one of the most influential political figures on the planet: the President of the United States, and the failure of the international community to achieve a decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions have created a gloomy outlook for the future of climate change. The Bulletin also insists that the agreements of the Paris Accord are not enough, and that to make substantial improvements to the environment, and to seriously thwart climate change, world leaders need to take more progressive action.


Some have criticized the inclusion of global warming in consideration of the Clock’s setting because it taints the original nuclear symbolism of the clock. For example: Will Boisvert of Breakthrough Journal has argued, “Stewardship of the planet is an unending slog, not a race against time”. However, it is the consensus of the scientific community that climate change is an existential threat with an approaching threshold, whereby humanity and civilization will be irreversibly altered. And with growing concerns over the future of environmental policy in leading nations, we may have less time than we think before that threshold is reached.


This year, The Bulletin chose a 30 second increase instead of the traditional increment of one or more minutes, in the hopes that President Trump’s rhetoric will not predict his action. On January 26 when the time change was announced, Trump had been President a mere matter of days, and the future remained unpredictable. The scientific community is holding out hope that he will make responsible decisions in regards to nuclear power and climate change.


In order to wind the clock back, we must look to our leaders and policy makers. Governments must engage with North Korea, Russia, Iraq, Pakistan and the United States to reduce nuclear modernization and risk, and to develop contemporary nuclear disarmament treaties. The international community must do all it can to realize the Paris Accord and mitigate environmental degradation, and governments must develop sensible policies on climate change, technology misuse and monitoring, and nuclear power.


Photo:”Baker Shot”, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear test by the United States (1946), by United States Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY Public Domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Erin Loney

Erin is a contributor and former Program Editor for Expanding Community at NATO Association of Canada. She recently graduated with an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization, with a minor in Political Science from the University of Ottawa. Key areas of study included international trade and development, Canadian foreign policy, economics of globalization, and research methods. Along with these topics, Erin’s personal areas of interest include environmental policy, public diplomacy, and human rights. In addition to her work at NAOC, Erin writes, edits, and contributes to social media management for an Ottawa tech start-up. She plans to pursue further studies and a career in International Affairs and Development. Erin has traveled extensively and is passionate about studying other cultures and areas of the world. She hopes to live abroad and work with an international or multilateral organization in the future. Erin can be reached at eriniloney@gmail.com.