Doomsday Clock stays at closest point to midnight

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The famed Doomsday Clock is staying set at 100 seconds to midnight this year, keeping the metaphor of how close the Earth is to annihilation at its closest time to that point since its creation 74 years ago. 

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveiled this year’s setting for the clock at a virtual news conference Wednesday morning.

“It would be a privilege and an honor to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock away from midnight. Although there are important bright spots that we articulate very clearly in our report, bright spots that we hope will continue to extend and evolve and allow us to push it back next year at this time, the current situation does not warrant it,” said Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s president and CEO. “The Doomsday Clock continues to hover dangerously, reminding us about how much work is needed to push the hands of the clock away from midnight.”

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the clock in 1947 to represent how close the planet was to annihilation by nuclear weapons. In more recent years, the journal has also weighed the effects of climate change and other emerging threats in setting the clock.

When the Bulletin set the clock at 100 seconds to midnight last year, it was the closest it’s ever been to the metaphorical point of the Earth’s destruction. It was also the first time the clock was expressed in seconds rather than minutes, which the Bulletin said it did to underline the urgency of the moment.

“The United States, Russia, and the world’s nuclear powers must stop shouting at each other. It’s time to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them,” former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), executive chair of the Bulletin, said Wednesday. “Likewise, with climate change, the United States, China and the other big countries must get serious about cutting lethal carbon emissions. Now, not tomorrow. … It’s 100 seconds to midnight. Wake up.”

The Bulletin decided not to move the clock closer to midnight after President Biden’s ascension to the U.S.’s highest office, citing his moves in his first few days to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization (WHO), and extend a nuclear treaty with Russia known as New START. It also pointed to his desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, as well as comments he made when he was vice president indicating he opposes a nuclear first strike.

“A new mood prevails in Washington with American diplomats once again working in support of the multilateral system that their country did so much to create following the Second World War,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and co-chair of the WHO Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. “This is good. But it is not enough.”

In not moving the clock backward, the Bulletin highlighted the COVID-19 crisis, saying that while the current pandemic is not an existential threat, it does underline the danger of biological threats and of ignoring science.

“As we can see with the current pandemic, something as small as a viral mutation could push us closer to doomsday, a viral mutation that could occur in an instant,” said Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. “We must continue to take this threat seriously, even when COVID-19 is well behind us.”

The Bulletin also cited accelerating nuclear programs in several countries, an ever warming planet and the threat multiplier of disinformation, saying in its statement on the clock setting that “online lying literally killed” last year with misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot that resulted in the deaths of five people.

The group also cited the Capitol attack among its concerns about nuclear weapons, with Bulletin Science and Security Board member Steve Fetter saying that “events at the U.S. Capitol three weeks ago highlighted the danger of investing in one person the sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, leading the Speaker of the House to take the remarkable step of contacting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to ensure that an unhinged president could not start a nuclear war.”

Updated: 11:46 a.m.

Tags Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock Doomsday scenarios Global catastrophic risk Nuclear warfare
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