After a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued fears over nuclear risks and climate change, the symbolic Doomsday Clock remains stuck at the same time as last year.
“The hands of the Doomsday Clock remain at 100 seconds to midnight, as close to midnight as ever,” Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), said on Wednesday (27 January).
Since 1947, the nonprofit organisation annually adjusts its symbolic annual end-of-days prediction, which “conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making,” according to the group.
In 2020, the clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it ever got to that point. Marking “a historic wakeup call,” its hands have remained in the same place since.
“[This year] revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly,” the group said.
“It’s a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change,” Bronson said.
The clock was first created by US scientists working on the atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project during World War II to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war. It’s current board members include 13 Nobel laureates.
The world was furthest from self-destruction in 1991, shortly after the end of the Cold War, when the clock showed 17 minutes to twelve, according to the Doomsday Clock.
Last call for dying arms control
The announcement came only a day after the 2010 New START Treaty, a threatened milestone accord between Moscow and Washington which caps nuclear warhead numbers, was salvaged from expiring in February 2021.
In one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new US administration, Washington and Moscow have struck a deal to extend the accord.
The move preserves the last major pact of its kind between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers after the past few years has seen several important arms control treaties being ended or undermined.
However, the scientists stated that despite the extension, the nuclear modernisation plans of the major nuclear powers raised the risk of a nuclear conflict being sparked by miscalculation.
The scientists listed the development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missile defences and missiles that can use both conventional and nuclear warheads, as raising the risk of mistakes.
The Bulletin’s experts had also written an open letter to new US President Joe Biden, warning “that an absolutely catastrophic US-Russian nuclear blunder is possible”.
“Russia poses the most serious threat imaginable to the United States; it could launch – possibly by mistake or miscalculation – hundreds of nuclear missiles, with absolutely catastrophic consequences.
“We, of course, pose a similar threat to the Russians.”
“Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate while destabilising ‘advances’ in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defences continued,” the scientists wrote.
The scientists also recommended the US to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, which former US President Donald Trump had exited in 2018.
Biden has said he wants to undo the diplomatic harm caused by Trump’s unilateral reimposition of sanctions on Iran, which happened over the objections of European allies but has so far not signalled any policy details.
In his recent inaugural phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden promised to coordinate with Europeans on Middle East Peace issues and on how to save the deal with Tehran.
Looming climate threats
“The US, China and other big countries must get serious about cutting lethal carbon emissions – now,” Jerry Brown, BAS executive chair, said.
Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, is also among the major threats cited by the Doomsday Clock authors.
“The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems,” the Bulletin said.
“A pandemic-related economic slowdown temporarily reduced the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming,” the authors said. “But over the coming decade, fossil fuel use needs to decline precipitously if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided.”
“Instead, fossil fuel development and production are projected to increase. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record high in 2020, one of the two warmest years on record,” they said
The massive wildfires and catastrophic cyclones of 2020 are illustrations of the major devastation that will only increase if governments do not significantly and quickly amplify their efforts to bring greenhouse gas emissions essentially to zero,” the scientists added.
At the same time, they also warned of the worsening spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, which would serve as a multiplier to the worsening threats of nuclear conflict and the climate emergency.
“In 2020, online lying literally killed,” the scientist’s statement said, pointing to the 6 January storming of the US Capitol, which was incited by Trump, saying it renewed “legitimate concerns about national leaders who have sole control of the use of nuclear weapons”.
Commentators have pointed out at the irony of Trump being stripped oh his Twitter account, but not of the “nuclear button”, the command for launching a nuclear attack – and the nuclear holocaust.