Ticking doomsday clock warns yet again of this dangerous new world

Ticking doomsday clock warns yet again of this dangerous new world
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When the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has judged a significant deterioration of the global security environment, it usually moves the hands of the “doomsday clock” closer to midnight. One year ago, recognizing a cluster of negative trends, the custodians reset this icon as never before in its 70 year history to two minutes before midnight. But this week, rather than push it closer to midnight, as many analysts had predicted, the board doubled down in a bold statement that the world is in a “new abnormal” and that the clock is still two minutes to midnight.

This statement is a clarion call to citizens and leaders alike in declaring, “This new abnormal is simply too volatile and dangerous to accept as a continuing state of world affairs.” With the articulation of the contours of the perilous new abnormal, the clock moves beyond a metaphorical representation of our planetary wounds. It exposes the intertwined conundrum of increased nuclear militarism, unabated climate change, and the corruption of global information systems by leaders using new technology for nefarious goals. The discussion of the latter is a major contribution to security thinking, particularly as it affects democracies.

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Perhaps the most insightful critique of leaders around the world notes their “intentional corruption of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends.” Sadly, calling on leaders in Washington to change their behavior regarding these issues will be a steep climb. Never before has an executive branch of the United States had a lower regard for the findings of science, especially around the topic of climate change. The more than $1 trillion proposed for future decades of nuclear modernization has no substantial opposition within Congress.

Moreover, the unprecedented technology changes and mobilization of the tools available in the cyberworld, artificial intelligence, and information corruption far outpace any national government inquiry, much less any significant response. The consequence of such policy inaction means the new abnormal “risks emboldening autocrats and lulling citizens around the world into a dangerous sense of anomie and political paralysis.”

What can be done to change course? Countering the new abnormal demands citizens and leaders alike commit to taking purposeful policy actions that invent and implement a resurgent set of global values, resource allocation, and governance processes. The need to reverse United States inaction on new global threats and to restore integrity to American leadership in tackling such threats has never been greater.

As useful as the various policy actions that are recommended in the board statement for enhanced nuclear controls, adhering to global cooperation in dealing with climate change, and greater governance of information systems and technology, there are other routes for United States action. Most essential many be the mobilization of new citizen coalitions across the world to organize support for weapons treaties that are in jeopardy.

Citizen action to halt climate change has meaningfully impacted national government action. The United States needs the same fervor for control of nuclear weapons that citizens have for environmental progress. It is time to recognize how earlier movements have demanded successfully that leaders put in place an international agreement to ban landmines, an atmospheric test ban treaty, and a global nuclear weapons ban treaty.

Finally, to counter the disturbing world trends indicated by the doomsday clock remaining at two minutes to midnight, American citizens should ask every candidate running for office in 2020 to answer this question: What will you plan to do to reverse the new abnormal in nuclear militarism, in climate change inaction, and in corruption of our information systems?

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and past chairman of the board of directors for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.