The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has declared that the Doomsday Clock is now set at two minutes to midnight.
Last year, we were two-and-a-half minutes from midnight - a hypothetical worldwide catastrophe - which means we’re now even closer to a global curtain call than we were back then.
“To call the world’s nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger, and its immediacy,” Dr Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the BAS, told reporters at the announcement ceremony in Washington DC.
Calling it a “grim assessment”, she zeroed in on the unpredictability of the President of the United States, noting that, through statements and tweets, his thoughts on the use of nuclear weapons remain uncertain and worrying.
Professor Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin Science and Security Board, explained that “there is unfortunately little doubt that the risk that nuclear weapons may be used, intentionally, or through miscalculation, grew last year throughout the globe.”
Although he referenced the fact that all nuclear powers are enhancing their own arsenals, particularly North Korea, special attention was once again paid to the United States. “Our allies and adversaries alike are being forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from [the current] US administration,” Rosner stressed.
Board member Professor Sharon Squassoni said: “For the first time in many years, no US-Russia nuclear arms control negotiations are underway. Instead, we could see a return to a nuclear arms race.”
Trump’s disdain for the Iran nuclear deal was also mentioned. Widely seen as a positive security measure, the panel criticized the President for his attempts to undermine it.
As a point of comparison, the last – and only – time it was two minutes to midnight was 1953. At the same time, the Korean War was ongoing, and the US government was considering using nuclear weapons to settle a few scores. Nuclear weapons themselves were proliferating across the globe, and the more powerful hydrogen bomb variant came to the fore.
The world was set at three minutes to midnight in 1949, 1984, and 2015. Just prior to 1984, in 1983, President Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech, which stressed the grave threat posed by Communism and the Soviet Union; he also proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” plan, a largely space-based plan to shoot down incoming USSR nuclear missiles.
At the same time, the Soviets misinterpreted NATO war games, dubbed Able Archer 83, as a cover for a genuine pre-emptive strike on the USSR. Consequently, their military and nuclear forces, particularly in Eastern Europe, were put on high alert.
The world is in a very different place today, but the clock has spoken: we are in a more dangerous position than we were in 1984, and 2018 is looking a lot more like 1953. It’s not a perfect comparison, but the key message here is that the world is, once again, getting more dangerous.
Despite falling from their peak of 64,499 warheads back in 1986 to 9,435 today, nuclear weapons still pose an enormous threat, particularly when you consider who gets to decide whether to use them.
Climate change and environmental threats have become a recent addition to the list of dangers that the BAS keep an eye on. Yet, unlike the last few years, climate change remained conspicuously in the background.
“Unlike the last few years when we’ve been focusing on both nuclear and climate change… this year, the nuclear discussions took center stage in our conversations,” Bronson noted.
In any case, when climate change was mentioned, it was still spoken of as a considerable threat. Despite the varying levels of political will to tackle it on the world stage, however, it was noted that solutions to the crisis already existed, and could theoretically be implemented quickly.
The prescient threats of cyber attacks and misinformation, including the "willingness to make up alternative facts", were referenced more prominently during the announcement. The antipathy and apathy toward science in the US were also alluded to.
It’s worth emphasising at this point that the clock is more than just an ominous symbol. It’s meant to stimulate discussion as to whether or not we can make the world a safer place, through better diplomacy, less reckless rhetoric, and climate change mitigation.
So, can we? Perhaps, but that largely depends on society’s ability or willingness to counteract the destruction of norms that made 2017 such a frightening, landmark year.