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Scientists Think Humanity Is 100 Seconds From Doomsday

Doomsday Clock
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveiled the 2020 'Doomsday Clock' at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Jan. 23, 2020. Citing growing nuclear risks and unchecked climate dangers, the group moved the clock to 100 seconds before midnight. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

In a purely symbolic, but still unsettling move, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists again moved the second hand on its Doomsday Clock. This time just 20 seconds closer to the end of times. As of Jan. 23, 2020, the clock is now less than two minutes to midnight. The 73-year-old Doomsday Clock, which was founded in 1947 by University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, is known globally as a gauge of how close the world could be to the apocalypse.

"As far as the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock are concerned, the world has entered into the realm of the two-minute warning, a period when danger is high and the margin for error low. The moment demands attention and new, creative responses. If decision makers continue to fail to act — pretending that being inside two minutes is no more urgent than the preceding period — citizens around the world should rightfully echo the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg and ask: 'How dare you?'" president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Rachel Bronson said in a statement.

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The Bulletin didn't move the clock in 2019, but did move the minute hand forward in 2018 by 30 seconds, to two minutes before midnight. The last time the clock was that close to midnight and global disaster was after both the United States and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs and were engaged in a nuclear arms race. From 2015 to 2016, the minute hand stayed at three minutes before midnight, the closest it had been through the early '80s. In 2017, however, the BAS moved the second hand forward 30 seconds to 11:57 and 30 seconds.

In a statement, the independent nonprofit group cited a retreat from arms control and an insufficient response to an increasingly threatened climate as factors in its conclusion to move the clock forward:

But this year, we move the Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight not just because trends in our major areas of concern — nuclear weapons and climate change — have failed to improve significantly over the last two years. We move the Clock toward midnight because the means by which political leaders had previously managed these potentially civilization-ending dangers are themselves being dismantled or undermined, without a realistic effort to replace them with new or better management regimes. In effect, the international political infrastructure for controlling existential risk is degrading, leaving the world in a situation of high and rising threat. Global leaders are not responding appropriately to reduce this threat level and counteract the hollowing-out of international political institutions, negotiations, and agreements that aim to contain it. The result is a heightened and growing risk of disaster.

BAS also said the retreat from arms control has created "state of emergency that requires the immediate, focused and unrelenting attention of the entire world," citing specifically Iran increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium; increasing its uranium enrichment levels; and adding new and improved centrifuges. Other concerns include the United States withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA); the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; the United States continuing to suggest it will not extend New START, the agreement that limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems; as well as the United States adopting "a bullying and derisive tone toward its Chinese and Russian competitors.

But this year's Clock shift also has to do with the increased threat of information warfare and other disruptive technologies, as well. From the report:

In recent years, national leaders have increasingly dismissed information with which they do not agree as fake news, promulgating their own untruths, exaggerations, and misrepresentations in response. Unfortunately, this trend accelerated in 2019. Leaders claimed their lies to be truth, calling into question the integrity of, and creating public distrust in, national institutions that have historically provided societal stability and cohesion. 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. Countries have long attempted to employ propaganda in service of their political agendas. Now, however, the internet provides widespread, inexpensive access to worldwide audiences, facilitating the broadcast of false and manipulative messages to large populations and enabling millions of individuals to indulge in their prejudices, biases, and ideological differences.

Since the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which currently boasts 15 Nobel laureates among its leaders, was founded, it has moved the hand on the clock more than 26 times. Each move symbolizes the group's current analysis of the world's chances of survival in the face of political, environmental and technological developments. The most notable factors to the keepers of the clock are the state of nuclear affairs and global climate change.

The farthest the clock has been away from midnight was in 1991, at the end of the Cold War, when the clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight.

But all is not lost. See The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' website to read about some of the BAS-recommended changes the world must make to move the Doomsday Clock back.

Originally Published: Jan 25, 2018

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