The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just moved the world’s Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to “midnight” (meaning the apocalypse), because world leaders failed to seriously address the urgent warnings about climate change and nuclear proliferation that the body laid out last year. The Doomsday Clock had been at 11:57PM since January 2015, and before that it had been at 11:55 since 2012. In the opinion of the Bulletin scientists, we are now only 30 seconds farther from armageddon than we were at the start of the Cold War, from 1953 to 1960, when the clock was set at two minutes to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock has been a symbolic way of representing threats to global security since 1947, and was created as a reaction to the United States dropping nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Initially it was a measure solely of the likelihood of global nuclear destruction, but in 2007 the scope was expanded to account for other worldwide threats — primarily climate change.
In a press conference explaining the decision to move the clock, scientists emphasized an escalation of “loose talk” that dismisses climate change and threatening nuclear escalation, noting “words matter in ensuring the safety and security of our planet.” 2016 was yet again the warmest year on record, the third year of record-setting temperatures in a row. The fact that president Donald Trump does not believe in climate change — and is actively prohibiting government agencies from discussing the threat with the public — has not helped matters. A representative for the Bulletin specifically called out the danger of global leaders who possess a “troubling propensity to doubt or outright reject scientific conclusions.”
In fact, the Bulletin scientists asked the Trump administration to acknowledge the threat of climate change, recommit the US to its Paris accords promises, and guide a global effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions.
Among the other looming threats named by the Bulletin, we have cyber warfare (and related “threats to the democratic process”) and the double-edged sword of groundbreaking biotechnologies like CRISPR, which are incredible advancements in disease-fighting but may yet be exploited by ignorant or malevolent actors.
Russia and the US were the main target of all of the scientists’ warnings, and both Trump and Vladimir Putin were mentioned by name several times. The bulk of the press conference was spent defending the idea of scientific fact and the power of language. So here we are: it’s almost the end of the world, and we have to say things like “facts are good.”
In a press release, the Bulletin stated that its 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.”
“Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science.”
This is the 23rd time the clock has been updated since its advent 70 years ago, and the first time the clock has been less than three minutes from midnight since 1960. For some fun added context: the clock stayed at seven minutes to midnight the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1961. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board and Board of Directors make the decision on whether or not to move the clock hand each year.