Overview:

The Doomsday Clock has changed, standing closer to midnight for nuclear war than ever before. But what tangible difference does this artificial representation of global instability make for us?

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On January 24, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists officially moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock, which for three quarters of a century has been used to depict humanity’s risk of global disaster from nuclear war. When the clock was first launched, on the cover of the June 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, researchers from the Chicago Atomic Scientists (a group involved in the Manhattan Project) held that the world was seven minutes from “Midnight”: an era of full-on nuclear war, with all its irreparable fallout. The clock has been moved 25 times, 8 backward and 17 forward, and now stands at 90 seconds: the closest to midnight it’s ever been.

The image of the Doomsday Clock is intended to reflect the severity of global instability: factors that increase the probability of a nuclear war. Its committee meets twice a year to deliberate on a range of political events potentially heightening or alleviating the risk of disaster, which means that the clock doesn’t reflect, in real-time, all the crises that could easily bring about this end. (For instance, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t timed well enough for inclusion in its changes.) Even though the core metaphor is not ideal for imagining a world where we can actually “turn back the clock” (time doesn’t work that way), the aim of this countdown configuration is nevertheless to convey the urgency of acting to prevent the arrival of a new and more terrifying “day” in human history.

So why 90 seconds?

Since the clock’s formation, the factors underlying changes made to its position by the Science and Security Board, which currently includes 10 Nobel laureates, have broadened considerably. This year, the reasoning for this grim move includes the usual nuclear program factors, but also broader destabilizing conditions brought about by climate change, bio-threats, and “disinformation and disruptive technology”.

On the peacekeeping front, one key consideration beyond the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine is the fate of the last ongoing nuclear treaty between Russia and the US, which is set to expire in 2026. Negotiations have obviously been on pause under current military action. If they do not renew, the end of the treaty could easily mean an end to mutual facility inspections and an uptick in distrust between two governments with considerable arsenals.

The US Defense Department’s statement about China’s growing nuclear arsenal (a predicted five-fold increase by 2035) also informed the announcement on Tuesday, as did North Korea’s increasing intermediate and long-range missile capabilities. Iran’s improvements to uranium enrichment capacity (under international monitoring) has nudged it closer to the threshold of nuclear weapons program capacity, while India, Pakistan, Russia, the US, and China are all modernizing if not pursuing fully fledged nuclear programs. Russia’s threat to attack US satellites also breaches traditional, neutrality-oriented norms with respect to space: a complex topic, since Starlink satellites are currently in use on the “side” of Ukraine military.

But these concrete military factors are reinforced by a more far-reaching sense of threat. It’s not just the technology, in other words; it’s also the attitudes in countries where it might first be deployed. The Board has therefore listed our failure to divest quickly enough of fossil fuels, record-breaking global greenhouse gas emissions, and the rise of extreme weather events among the factors currently fueling global insecurity and heightening the risk of nuclear escalation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also ushered us into an era of increasing bio-threats, which go far beyond the concern that bio-weapons will be used in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Further zoonotic diseases and laboratory outbreak events with pandemic-level consequences are a matter of “when”, not “if”, in large part due to the way that climate change is transforming local ecosystems and putting more pressure on medical science to keep up with the viral, bacterial, and fungal threats not only to our species, but also to the species that feed and sustain us.

The Board offered one slender positive: electoral conspiracies did not flourish in the US 2022 midterms and Brazil’s latest presidential election. However, its assessment of the world’s current threats went on to include the dangers to democracy that exist in tech- and war-driven disinformation campaigns, in the US as in Russia.

What now?

What are we to make of this latest proclamation, by one group of experts making use of an imperfect metaphor and artificial metric to sound the alarm on global precarity?

The Doomsday Clock is certainly meant to concern us, and to motivate changes in political behavior. The Board specifically recommends that,

at a minimum, the United States must keep the door open to principled engagement with Moscow that reduces the dangerous increase in nuclear risk the war has fostered. One element of risk reduction could involve sustained, high-level US military-to-military contacts with Russia to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation. The US government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; they all should be explored. Finding a path to serious peace negotiations could go a long way toward reducing the risk of escalation.

“A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight”, Science and Security Board Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 24, 2023

However, threats of “doomsday” can often backfire. The Western world has known end-of-the-world discourse since at least the prophecy attributed to Christ in Matthew 24, that “after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken” and that all this would happen within the generation of those present. In more recent centuries, whole schools of faith, like the Seventh-Day Adventists emerging after William Miller’s failed “Second Advent” predictions in 1844, have been shaped around end-times prophecy. Sometimes with dread and lamentation. Sometimes with great excitement about living in “interesting” times.

Though our world may be more openly secular now than in many eras come before, still we have to be mindful of the way that sensational end-times rhetoric can come to replace the less exciting, even tediously quotidian, but above all essential work involved in building better, more equitably sustainable societies.

Yes, this Doomsday Clock now sits at 90 seconds to midnight.

But for those of us who have been working to improve our communities the whole time, what tangible difference will this symbolic act make in our lives? How will it affect our choices when grappling with the energy, wartime, disparity-driven, biomedical, and technological challenges in all our fleeting, precious lives?

If we’re already clued into these crises, and doing our best where we can, how we can, to combat them, then our answer to this latest change in the clock should be simple:

Carry on.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.