The Doomsday Clock remains at 100 seconds to midnight.
The new time on the clock — a metaphorical representation of how close humanity is to destruction — was revealed Thursday morning by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“Today, the members of the science and security board [SASB] find the world to be no safer than it was last year at this time, and therefore have decided to set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight,” Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said at a press conference via Zoom.
“The Doomsday Clock continues to hover dangerously, reminding us how much work is needed to ensure a safer and healthier planet. We must continue to push the hands of the clock away from midnight.”
Some of the issues of concern, the scientists noted, were nuclear proliferation, climate change, the pandemic, cybersecurity and the impacts of mis- and disinformation on social media.
The organization noted the extreme effects of climate change over the past year, including the record-breaking heat in Western Canada and the U.S., as well as the record-breaking temperature in the Siberian Arctic, droughts in eastern Africa and floods in China and Europe.
Typically, the hands of the clock are moved forward or back depending on how vulnerable the world is. Midnight represents a catastrophe.
Clock conceived during Cold War
The clock was introduced in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after collaborating with artist Martyl Langsdorf to create a design for the cover of the first issue of their magazine. Langsdorf was married to physicist Alexander Langsdorf, who had worked on the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bombs.
Feeling the sense of urgency from the scientists working on the bomb, she sketched a clock that suggested humanity didn’t have much time left to get the destructive weapon under control.
The furthest the hands have ever been from midnight was at 17 minutes in 1991, at the end of the Cold War.
We are currently at the closest to midnight in the clock’s history. The hands were first moved to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020. Before that, the closest they had ever come was two minutes to midnight, twice: once in 1953, after both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had tested the first nuclear bombs within six months of one another, and in 2018, mainly due to climate change and the nuclear risk.
The power of communication
Author and science communicator Hank Green, who was part of the press conference, said that while the power of the atom certainly poses a threat to humanity, the real power humans have is the way in which we communicate.
“Atomic energy might seem like the greatest power we have ever harnessed, but it is not. Our greatest power has always been and will always be our words and our ideas and our stories,” he said.
“I think we need to remember that we are at the beginning of a very big shift in how humans communicate. We do not know what we are doing with this colossal new tool [speech] that we have been given — like a monkey with a gun, wondering why this thing makes so much noise, and then [being] surprised when our foot starts bleeding.”
The organization did note that, although humanity is at great risk, there have been some positive moves, such as talks between the U.S. and Russia and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) program that limits nuclear weapons, as well as the election of President Biden, who is committed to the Paris Agreement working toward carbon emissions reductions in the face of climate change.
But it’s not enough, the scientists say.
“One hundred seconds to midnight reflects the Board’s judgment that we are stuck in a perilous moment — one that brings neither stability nor security,” Sharon Squassoni, co-chair of the SASB, and a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, said in a statement.
“Positive developments in 2021 failed to counteract negative, long-term trends.”
Lessons from COVID-19
The scientists cited North Korea’s testing of missiles, though did say that, on a positive note, the country had not tested ICBMs recently, limiting them instead to short-range missiles.
Asha M. George, executive director of the Bulletin’s Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, who is also a member of the SASB, remarked on how unprepared the world was for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 has revealed our national and global vulnerabilities to biological events,” she said. “In 2002, the first cases of SARS appeared. Those initial outbreaks should have served as an adequate warning.”
Instead, she said, we stopped working on a vaccine to treat it. And we did the same thing again with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The Bulletin also raised concerns about the development of biological weapons in North Korea and Russia.
This is the 75th anniversary of the clock. As part of the anniversary, the Bulletin launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #TurnBacktheClock, asking the public to share positive actions that inspire them, as well as how they can make the world safer.
Green praised the youth of today for their efforts in tackling issues such as climate change and misinformation, but reminded them not to take on all of the world’s challenges.
“If you put all the weight of the problems on your shoulders alone, you will be miserable and you will burn out and you will not be useful in this process,” he said.