For first time since the height of the Cold War, the hands of the Doomsday Clock have been moved to 11:58 p.m.
The clock, a symbolic indicator of how close humankind is to a global catastrophe – marked by midnight – was set at 2 and a half minutes to midnight a year ago. This is now the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953, when the United States and then-Soviet Union were testing hydrogen bombs.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chicago-based academic journal that created the clock in 1947, came to the “grim assessment” to move the clock’s hands based largely on the issue of nuclear weapons, according to Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin.
“We’re responding to a very difficult year,” Bronson said. “There’s an increased urgency on nuclear issues with the tensions between the U.S. and Russia and the recent tests of North Korea and the amped-up rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea. We’re raising the alarm about current situations.”
“There is unfortunately little doubt that the risk of nuclear weapons may be used intentionally or because of miscalculation,” said Robert Rosner, chairman of the Bulletin Science and Security Board at a press conference Thursday. “Through last year and around the globe, we’re seeing that all the major weapons states are investing in their nuclear arsenals. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests demonstrated an accelerating and successful program in building a new generation of weapons of mass destruction.”
A lack of a coherent and consistent foreign policy by the Trump administration “constitutes a major challenge” and “has made the existing nuclear risks greater than necessary and added to their complexity,” he said.
Among the group’s recommendations for turning back the clock is for President Donald Trump to “refrain from provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea,” said Sharon Squassoni, board member of the Bulletin Science and Security Board. “We’re all used to Kim Jong Un and his provocative rhetoric. We know to ignore it. But honestly, I’m not sure how North Korea interprets those statements.”
They also recommend the United States continues dialogue with North Korea and uses the upcoming Winter Olympics as an opportunity in which “we can persuade North Korea to sit down without any preconditions,” said Squassoni.
Climate change was another major factor in the decision to move the clock closer to midnight. “Even at 1 degree of warming, humankind is witnessing and suffering the impact,” Sivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin Science and Security Board said, citing the devastation caused by hurricanes last fall and extreme heat waves across the globe.
“Unfortunately, climate impacts such as these will worsen before things get better but what can improve, what can move us further from midnight is a shift in our willingness, our ability and our effectiveness at reducing (greenhouse gas) emissions to head off the worst climate impacts and managing what climate impacts our unavoidable,” Karth said.
Despite Trump’s appointments of “climate change deniers” and actions to “derail” U.S. climate action, the global community has remained committed to addressing climate change, he said. “There is indeed hope, hope for citizens to mobilize and compel leaders to respect science and heed the facts and make rational choices to move us further from the brink.”
In addition to nuclear weapons threats and climate change, board members cited the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science and in facts themselves as factors in moving the clock.
“Attempts to intervene in elections through sophisticated hacking operations and the spread of disinformation have threatened democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to reach reasonable decisions on public policy—including policy relating to nuclear weapons, climate change and other global threats,” the report states. “The international community should establish new measures that discourage and penalize all cross-border subversions of democracy.”
Note: This story was originally published Jan. 25. It has been updated.
Jan. 22: Protests erupt in South Korea as a delegation from North Korea arrives ahead of the Winter Olympics. Can Olympic diplomacy defuse the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula?
Jan. 19: How would Illinois residents be notified of a nuclear threat – and where should they seek shelter if an alert was issued? We speak with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Dec. 7, 2017: Gov. Bruce Rauner has thus far ignored calls to commit Illinois to meeting goals set in the Paris climate agreement, which aims to slow global warming through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.