Thanks To 2020, Doomsday Clock Remains Closest To Midnight It’s Ever Been

The furthest the clock has ever been from midnight was in 1991 when the Cold War was drawing to a close. Image credit: HE68/Shutterstock.com

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has announced that the Doomsday Clock shall remain unchanged at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to midnight, or "doomsday," since its creation in 1947. This means humanity is still closer to a potential apocalypse than ever.

In 2020, the clock was moved forward to just 100 seconds to midnight based on continued nuclear weapons, the limited political response to climate change, and the proliferation of cyber-based disinformation. While there have been some optimistic developments in these fields, such as the decline in demand for fossil fuels, the past year has also seen the COVID-19 pandemic, a global catastrophe that highlighted many vulnerabilities in the way we live on this planet. As such, the clock remains unchanged. 

“The hands of the Doomsday Clock remain at 100 seconds to midnight, as close to midnight as ever," Dr Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a statement. "The lethal and fear-inspiring COVID-19 pandemic serves as a historic ‘wake-up call,’ a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.”

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphoric countdown towards the likelihood of a human-driven global catastrophe. Midnight represents the point at which a hypothetical apocalypse might happen. The closer the clock is to midnight, the closer humanity is to a potentially worldwide catastrophe 

The project was started in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a group of atomic scientists who were becoming increasingly concerned with the proliferation of atomic bombs and the intense geopolitical standoff between the US and the USSR. Many of the scientists were once part of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret US government mission to develop the first atomic bomb in the 1940s, but had become starkly aware of the monster they had created. 

At the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, the Doomsday Clock was set to 7 minutes to midnight and was largely concerned with the quarrels of nuclear-armed superpowers. As the tensions of the Cold War continued to wax and wane, the clock hand moved closer and further from the midnight mark. The furthest the clock has ever been was in 1991 — set to 11:43 pm — when the Cold War was drawing to a close following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the dissolution of the USSR, and the signing of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. 

Since then, however, the minute clock has been slowly ticking towards midnight. In recent years, the movement of the Doomsday Clock has primarily been dictated by three factors: the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons, lack of action on climate change, and so-called “disruptive technologies,” which includes the growing spread of misinformation, cyberwarfare, and artificial intelligence.

It’s easy to think that the idea of atomic war isn’t a concern in the 21st-century, but the threat is still hanging over the fate of our entire planet. Despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear weapons was approximately 13,410 warheads in early-2020, around the same levels seen during the 1950s. Up to 1,800 warheads are also primed on high alert and ready for use at very short notice.

However, the "mishandling" of the COVID-19 pandemic by governments, institutions, and a "misled public" shows that humanity remains unprepared to handle the greater threats of both nuclear war and climate change, the Bulletin said. In a separate statement, it accused governments of "abdicating responsibility" and ignoring scientific advice on one of the greatest public health crises the world has seen, but conceded that the election of a US president who supports international cooperation and science-based policy is a positive step forward.

“Before COVID-19... the idea of a devastating pandemic was relegated to science fiction and the historical references. I think we all know now that that is not the case," Dr Asha George, Science and Security Board member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in the online announcement. "It never was."

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