The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight

As of Jan. 23, the Doomsday Clock reads 100 seconds to midnight. (Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images)

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — founded by Manhattan Project scientists who invented the nuclear bomb, with 13 Nobel laureates on its executive board — has just moved its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight. This marks the most severe security threat in its history.

The scientists are sounding the alarm not due to subjective fears caused by a mercurial and uninformed president with his finger on the nuclear trigger, but from a dispassionate assessment of terrifying realities. “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers — nuclear war and climate change — that are compounded by ... cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” reports the Bulletin. These dangers have become dire not simply because they are getting worse, but because “world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

The threat posed by nuclear weapons has become more perilous because virtually the entire edifice of arms control (which at least added some stability to the nuclear face-off) is being dismantled. President Trump already deep-sixed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the last remaining arms-control treaty — the New START Treaty that capped Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals — is on the verge of expiring, with the Trump administration showing no sign of giving serious consideration to talks. The White House is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty that allows the United States and Russia to observe each other’s arsenals in monitored overflights. No substantive effort has been made to bring China into arms-control talks. Negotiations with North Korea have collapsed; its leader, Kim Jong Un, promises to unveil a new “strategic weapon.” Trump has pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, imposed severe sanctions and killed key military leader Qasem Soleimani. Tehran has responded by beginning to step away from the limits of the treaty and by increasing provocations in the region. The United States and Russia are on the verge of launching another nuclear buildup, with our country planning to squander another $1.2 trillion over the coming decades on the folly.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency is visible in fires and droughts and floods across the world, from Australia to Missouri. Millions have already been displaced; the billions already spent are just the beginning. Governmental action on the climate emergency falls far short of even the most modest hopes for survival, with carbon emissions still increasing. Yet Trump has pulled the country out of the Paris climate accord, weakening its already limited progress.

The Bulletin’s warning got far too little attention. There was no 24-7 coverage or analysis. Few politicians bothered to respond. But don’t be misled: This is the real deal, the true catastrophe. When history writes about the Trump administration, his tantrums and insults, his tweets and rallies, his ignorance and temper will no doubt be mentioned, but historians will surely focus on the lost years when this president didn’t just ignore these existential threats, but actively exacerbated them.

At the Bulletin’s news conference, former California governor Jerry Brown, the executive chair of the group’s governingboard, noted: “Speaking of danger and destruction is never very easy, because if you speak the truth, people will not want to listen because it’s too awful.” No one wants to be what Brown called a “prophet of doom,” but when doomsday in fact approaches, those prophets are more necessary than ever.

There are reasons for hope. Led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Democratic presidential candidates have called for reviving the arms-control process and returning to the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. Warren and Sanders have championed further steps: reductions in military spending, a ban on first use of nuclear weapons, moving nuclear weapons off trigger alert, further nuclear reductions rather than launching a new arms race. Sanders has been particularly forceful in leading the effort for a Green New Deal that would make the investments necessary to address the climate emergency. Across the world, young people are rising to protest the failure of the elders to lead on climate. Politicians may still find there is a price to pay for failing to lead. But surely the Bulletin is right: We are a handful of seconds from catastrophe and the clock is ticking.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Mistrust with Russia is growing. Why make things more opaque, President Trump?

Charlie Jane Anders: Pop culture is no longer full of apocalyptic nuclear visions. That’s too bad.

David Von Drehle: Don’t fall for the doomsday predictions

The Post’s View: Australia’s apocalyptic fires are a warning to the world