“The challenge is what do we do about it?” President Rachel Bronson told The Washington Post. In the clock’s grimmest moment ever, she believes years of dire warnings have begun to break through.
“People are starting to get it,” Bronson said, pointing to the movement ignited by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. “But we need our leaders to be responding.”
Jerry Brown, the former California governor who serves as executive chair for the Bulletin, had a darker message after the clock was unveiled. The longtime Democratic politician said he sees “a world of vast, deep and pervasive complacency” toward the Doomsday Clock’s message across the political spectrum.
“What is being said this morning is not being heard,” Brown said. “It’s being ignored. It’s being denied.”
Deciding each year whether humankind has veered closer to destruction, the Bulletin has traditionally focused on the availability of nuclear weapons and a willingness among the world’s great powers to use them. Members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board pointed this year to a host of concerning developments, including the prospect of a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear development completely falling apart after Iran began reducing its compliance following the United States’ withdrawal under President Trump.
In North Korea, meanwhile, there has been “no real progress” despite fanfare over talks with the Trump administration, said Sharon Squassoni, a professor at George Washington University. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has promised to demonstrate a new weapon. Earlier this year, she noted, the United States left an arms control treaty with Russia that had been in place since the 1980s.
Thursday’s announcement also underscored changes over the years in the threats tracked by the Doomsday Clock, as the Bulletin’s scientists express growing concern about the state of the planet. They warned in 2007 that the threat of climate change is “nearly as dire” as the danger of nuclear weapons, and on Thursday the Stockholm Environmental Institute’s Sivan Kartha put the issue once considered an “academic curiosity” front and center.
“To test the limits of earth’s habitable temperature is madness,” he said. “It’s a madness akin to the nuclear madness that is again threatening the world.”
Countries’ commitments to curb greenhouse gases in the coming decade under the Paris Climate Agreement would need to be multiplied eightfold to meet its goal of preventing the global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels, Kartha said. He listed this year’s disasters that he said were fueled by climate change: heat waves and floods in India, “unprecedented” wildfires in Australia and hurricanes around the globe.
Compounding the long-standing concerns about climate change and nuclear disaster is the rise of “information warfare,” said Robert Latiff, a retired Air Force major general and a fellow at the University of Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Technologies like artificial intelligence, fast and highly maneuverable “hypersonic” weapons, as well as the increasing potential for conflict in space all add to his worries that a minor event could trigger catastrophic fallout.
“We have a witch’s brew of ingredients for global conflict,” he said.
It has not helped, he added, that world leaders have responded with falsehoods and misrepresentations while decrying “fake news.” He lamented what he called government disdain for experts and hostility toward science, pointing to the Trump administration’s order that all federal agencies cut their advisory boards by at least a third.
The Doomsday Clock has wavered between 2 and 17 minutes to the apocalypse since its inception in 1947.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by veterans of the Manhattan Project who were concerned about the consequences of their nuclear research. One of them, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf, was married to artist Martyl Langsdorf, who 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 ahead in 1949.
Since then, the Bulletin’s board has determined how far the clock’s minute hand will move, usually to draw attention to worldwide crises it believes threaten the survival of the human species.
The decision to move up the time on the clock in 2018 was motivated largely by the Bulletin’s sense of looming nuclear peril. It listed several grim developments: North Korea had made rapid progress in developing a thermonuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States; relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated, with no high-level arms-control negotiations; and nations around the world were moving to modernize and enhance their nuclear arsenals.
In addition, the organization cited unchecked artificial intelligence, the alarming spread of disinformation and the public’s eroding trust in institutions.
The group said last year that although the scientists noted an upsetting change in the information ecosystem in 2018, they did not see a “qualitative” change with other threats that would have warranted resetting the time on the clock. But Bronson told reporters the clock’s lack of movement reflected a “new abnormal” and “should not be taken as a sign of stability but as a stark warning.”