Thoughts on the Doomsday Clock ticking forward

[Here’s my two cents on the Doomsday Clock, building on a Facebook post I made last week.]

After the United States’s atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the risks of nuclear disaster and the dangers it posed to humanity became very real in the public imagination. The Doomsday Clock has drawn attention to these threats ever since, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been inching closer and closer to midnight.

Aboveground Nuclear Test conducted at the Nevada Test Site on 25 May 1953. (Source: Nevada Department of Environmental Protection)

As I predicted, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated the clock last week by moving it from two and a half to two minutes until midnight, the nearest humans have been to apocalypse and annihilation. It would put 2018 in a grim tie with 1953, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. developed the hydrogen bomb and heightened the Cold War.

In an attempt to make the Doomsday Clock more punctual, a decade ago the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ science and security board incorporated climate change threats in their assessments. In the following years, they have also referenced emerging technologies in the life sciences — mainly gene editing and gene drives — as well as killer robots, cyber attacks, and bioweapons.

Nuclear brinkmanship between the unpredictable governments of U.S. and North Korea, combined with the possibility of proliferation in the Middle East if the Iran nuclear agreement unravels, have helped push the minute hand farther last year. Now we have the Trump administration continuing Obama’s ill-advised policy of modernizing and expanding the US nuclear arsenal. And like his predecessor, Trump continues the Cold War-era policy of having nukes on hair-trigger alert. Then we had the false alarm of a missile alert in Hawaii, highlighting just how quickly a situation could escalate and weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed. [Update on 2 Feb.: The Pentagon today announced plans to develop low-yield nuclear weapons — “only” as explosive as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — for ballistic and cruise missiles launched from submarines. They also said that nuclear weapons could be used in response to non-nuclear attacks.]

Simultaneously, global warming continues relentlessly, and though it’s a long-term problem, in the short term the time for action is ticking down, especially as the Trump administration retreats on efforts to combat climate change. So I think it makes sense for the clock to move forward, as we’re in more danger than before.

Nevertheless, it’s challenging to assess this dizzying array of global perils and potential threats together. Furthermore, how can we simultaneously evaluate or even rank these threats to civilization — while evaluating how well or poorly our society is currently addressing them? (One might also ask who is left out of the Doomsday Clock, since billions of people in poverty and environmental refugees often bear the brunt of disasters, but they’re threatened by smaller scale disasters than can be registered by a clock attuned to global threats to humanity.)

In any case, I don’t think we have to view all this entirely with doom and gloom. Just as a handful of people (and not just Trump) can push that minute hand forward, by working together to stop global warming and by focusing on diplomacy, we can pull ourselves back from the edge of the precipice.

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