In announcing that the Doomsday Clock was moving 30 seconds closer to the end of humanity, the group noted that in 2016, “the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.”
But the organization also cited the election of President Trump in changing the symbolic clock.
“Making matters worse, the United States now has a president who has promised to impede progress on both of those fronts,” theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley wrote in a New York Times op-ed on behalf of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.”
The clock is symbolic, sitting at the intersection of art and science, and it has wavered between two minutes and 17 minutes till doom since its inception in 1947. A board of scientists and nuclear experts meets regularly to determine what time it is on the Doomsday Clock.
The clock was last moved in 2015, when two minutes were taken away to express the group's dissatisfaction with world progress on “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals.” Those issues, the group said at the time, “pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.”
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was founded by some of the people who worked on the Manhattan Project. One of them, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf, was married to artist Martyl Langsdorf. She created the clock and set it at seven minutes to midnight, or 11:53, for the cover of the group's magazine. Her husband moved the time four minutes later in 1949.
Since then, the bulletin's board has determined when the clock's minute hand will move, usually to draw attention to worldwide crises that, the board believes, threaten the survival of the human species. The group's reasoning focuses almost exclusively on the availability of nuclear weapons and a willingness among the world's great powers to use them.
In 2016, the bulletin said in its statement: “The United States and Russia — which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases.”
The group noted that the “climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal — but only somewhat.”
Notably, the bulletin added: “This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.”
Titley, the retired rear admiral and founding director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, said that despite some encouraging signs, such as the Paris agreement, global warming continues to threaten the future of humanity.
He pointed out that 2016 was the warmest year on record and that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have been recorded since 2001. He cited a September 2016 intelligence report that highlighted the many threats posed by climate change, including global instability, increased risk to human health and adverse effects on food availability.
But, Titley said, the political situation in the United States is of “particular concern.”
“Climate change should not be a partisan issue,” he said. “The well-established physics of the earth's carbon cycle is neither liberal, nor conservative in character. The Trump Administration needs to state clearly and unequivocally that it accepts climate change caused by human activity as reality. There are no alternative facts here.”
Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin's executive director and publisher, said threats such as climate change are being compounded by “a growing disregard for scientific expertise.”
“There is a troubling propensity to discount, or outright reject, expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts,” she said. “The board concludes in no uncertain terms that words matter in ensuring the safety and security of our planet.”
Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state who also served as ambassador to the United Nations and Israel, cited Trump's “casual talk” about nuclear weapons in telling reporters that “nuclear rhetoric is now loose and destabilizing.”
“We are more than ever impressed that words matter, words count,” he said.
In their Times op-ed, Krauss and Titley wrote:
We understand that Mr. Trump has been in office only days, that many of his cabinet nominees are awaiting confirmation and that he has had little time to take official action.But Mr. Trump’s statements and actions have been unsettling. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding and even deploying the American nuclear arsenal. He has expressed disbelief in the scientific consensus on global warming. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or reject expert advice related to international security. And his nominees to head the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and the Budget have disputed or questioned climate change.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump faced a recurring charge: that he could not be trusted with the nation's nuclear weapons.
In August, a group of 50 former national security officials who served Republican and Democratic presidents signed an open letter saying Trump lacked the character, values and experience to be president.
“All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” the group said.
The worst-possible scenario was at times unspoken but clear — that Trump's lack of self-control could spark nuclear war.
“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” his Democratic campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, charged.
While Trump has repeatedly dismissed those criticisms, he has done little to calm fears of impending nuclear war since winning the presidency. Last month, Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” He did not elaborate on the message, which followed comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin about strengthening his country's nuclear arsenal.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
Trump's tweet — and comments he reportedly made the following day to MSNBC's “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski — sparked fears of a renewed arms race between the two countries.
Although Trump later seemed to back off his statements, suggesting in an interview with two European publications that “nuclear weapons should be way down,” there were reasons to be concerned after he gained control of the United States' nearly 1,400 active nuclear warheads on Inauguration Day, The Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor said.
Two days after Trump was elected, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki invited him to visit, the Japan Times reported.
Then, Tadatoshi Akiba, the former mayor of Hiroshima, wrote a letter to Trump just before his inauguration, urging him to make “wise and peaceable” decisions regarding nuclear weapons.
This post has been updated.