The Doomsday Clock meets the coronavirus

The Doomsday Clock meets the coronavirus
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Remember the threats of nuclear war and climate change?  

After a few months of life with the coronavirus pandemic, the existential threats to humankind that once dominated so much of our thinking may seem much more removed from today than they are.

In fact, as the person who convened the Jan. 23, 2020 announcement in which the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its iconic Doomsday Clock twenty seconds closer to midnight, I have been asked more than once, “How did the Doomsday Clock miss the coronavirus?” 

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The truth is that it didn’t.  

While concerns about climate change and nuclear war were the major drivers in moving the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the 2020 statement issued by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists returns over and over again to the same underlying problem: The deliberate erosion by politicians of science and our core institutions. 

As the Doomsday Clock Statement notes: “Over the last two years, we have seen influential leaders denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats … in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain. By undermining cooperative, science- and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity, leaders have helped to create a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later.” 

In recent years, we have seen a growing group of national leaders dismiss information with which they do not agree as fake news and advance their own untruths for domestic political gain. Scientists and experts are being marginalized just as their findings are most needed to navigate increasingly complex and global 21st century challenges.  

As we pointed out back then, “In the United States, there is active political antagonism toward science and a growing sense of government-sanctioned disdain for expert opinion, creating fear and doubt regarding well-established science about climate change and other urgent challenges.”  

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Four months later, I read those words and I am chilled by the extent to which they anticipated the early denial in the U.S. of the coronavirus pandemic threat, the downplaying and delaying of needed public health responses, the “China virus” references, the vilifying of prominent scientists, and so forth. It is a disastrous succession of falling dominoes made possible by four years of shredding science, mocking scientists and other experts and catering to conspiracy theories instead of nurturing our previously most trusted institutions.

On the date in January when the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved closer to midnight, reports were emerging from China about the fast-spreading virus that was prompting the government in Beijing to quarantine the entire city of Wuhan. The United States had recognized its first case of coronavirus only one day earlier.

Since then, we have joined many others in asking: Where do we go from here? 

Rather than turning inward and undertaking a global blame-game, the challenge before us is how best respond to the current worldwide emergency because we can expect more of them in the years to come.

While “social isolation” and other tactics being used today to combat the coronavirus pandemic are not those needed to address the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, the resolve now being exhibited to take major steps to bring about swift change is a model for dealing with these existential threats to the future of human life. Wide scale individual action remains essential to demanding that political leaders take action now before it is too late.  

One possible model for coordination is the diverse, international team that announced in January the movement of the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock, including globally recognized leaders like Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and chair of the Elders, Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations and Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. More active global coordination is required and serious U.S. leadership would facilitate such action.  

We need to remind ourselves that respect for science and institutions were once the bedrock of American leadership in everything from health matters — such as how to deal with viruses — to reducing major threats to our way of life, including arms control and nuclear war.

Things have not changed so much in the last four years that the United States is unable to once again be a leader in world affairs and a broker of global solutions. It’s in our hands to do so. We don’t have a second to waste.

Rachel Bronson is the president & CEO of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelBronson1.