Midnight Spells Catastrophe: Doomsday Clock Tells How Close We Are

What’s a Doomsday Clock, and what does Donald Trump have to do with it?

5 min read
Donald Trump’s questionable nuclear policies have also brought us closer to ‘doomsday’.

When the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists began the Doomsday Clock, they may not have imagined that a president of the United States would one day become one of their reasons to take the clock closer to Doomsday, or midnight.

‘Midnight’ in this case refers to nuclear armageddon and widespread global catastrophe.

In January 2018, the Bulletin moved the Doomsday clock to two minutes to midnight – the closest it has ever been. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union both began hydrogen-weapons testing.

The Bulletin will be meeting early in 2019 to deliberate if the clock gets readjusted.
The Bulletin will be meeting early in 2019 to deliberate if the clock gets readjusted.
(Photo: Screenshot/ Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

The Clock started at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947 and since then, has been readjusted 22 times. It moves both back and forth according to the perception of risk by the Bulletin. So what has happened to convince the Bulletin the world is looking at impending catastrophe on the worst scale since its inception?

Since 1947, the clock had only taken into account the threat posed by nuclear proliferation. However, since 2007, the Bulletin – the group of scientists who run the clock – has also decided to reflect the threats from climate change and new scientific developments that might result in humans inflicting lethal damage to the planet and humanity.

This year, the Bulletin decided that the combined risks of nuclear war and the likelihood of multiple disasters from climate change warranted a moving of the clock as a warning to humanity.

Trump, Kim Jong Un: World Leaders’ Role in Catastrophe

Since 1953, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have met twice a year to discuss world events and readjust the clock as necessary.

In the last meeting, which was in January of 2018, the Bulletin prominently cited problematic policy and rhetoric emanating from the US administration under Donald Trump as one of the factors in their moving of the clock. They also cited North Korea and its ambitions for a nuclear arsenal as a pressure point.

The board also cited Trump’s disavowal of the Iran deal, hiring of climate-change deniers at the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US administration’s plans to remake and expand the nation’s nuclear arsenal as reasons for moving closer to midnight, as reported by The New York Times.

This is the detailed document stating last year’s announcement which cites Trump and North Korea multiple times:

2018 Doomsday Clock Statement.pdf

The Bulletin cites the rising nuclear threat, particularly from North Korea, as the most influential factor in their decision to move the clock two minutes to midnight. They mention that their warning in 2017 was not taken seriously.

The Bulletin mentions the brewing nuclear risks in the Korean Peninsula.
The Bulletin mentions the brewing nuclear risks in the Korean Peninsula.
(Photo: Screenshot/Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

They also mention the tension between Russia and US as one of the factors. The undermining of the nuclear treaty, upgrading the arsenals and non-participation in arms-control negotiations also put both sides and their neighbours at the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, says the Bulletin.

India and Pakistan are also named in the report for their increasing nuclear arsenals.

Nuclear risks are also compounded because for the first time in many years, there are no US-Russia arms control negotiations underway. All of this has brought us closer to catastrophe, the Bulletin contends.

Atomic Bombs & Man-Made Disaster: How the Clock Came Into Being

In 1943, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr was asked to join other scientists in a secret project: The attempt to develop an atomic bomb.

It was this project that ultimately resulted in atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II.

But Langsdorf, like many other scientists, was deeply uncomfortable with the idea that humans had invented a device powerful and deadly enough to render humankind extinct.

To bring attention to its dangers, Langsdorf and his fellow scientists began circulating a mimeographed newsletter called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In June 1947, the newsletter was turned into a magazine. And gracing that magazine’s cover was the Doomsday Clock.

Langsdorf’s wife, Martyl, was the artist who designed that first cover.

According to the Bulletin’s website, Martyl said that there was no particular reason for starting at seven minutes to midnight, it just “looked good to her eye.”

The Doomsday Clock exists only in digital space. The basic idea behind the Clock is to get people to think about the perils and dangers of life in the nuclear age.

The farthest the Clock has been from ‘Doomsday’ was in 1991. The Cold War had just ended. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the first treaty to provide for deep cuts to the two countries’ strategic nuclear weapons arsenals.

Who Decides What Time it Should be?

The Bulletin is made up of scientists and other experts with deep knowledge of nuclear technology and climate science, who often provide expert advice to governments and international agencies.

The Bulletin also consult their colleagues across a range of disciplines and seek the views of their Board of Sponsors, which includes 14 Nobel Laureates.

There are some sections from the science community and outside that question the Bulletin’s authority to ‘forecast’ the possibly disastrous future. But the Clock isn’t designed to forecast – it is designed to warn.

The Bulletin studies the events that have already occurred and existing trends. Their board tracks numbers, statistics and the current happenings around the world.

They take into account things like the number and kinds of nuclear weapons in the world, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the degree of acidity in our oceans, and the rate of sea level rise.

The board also takes account of leaders’ and citizens’ efforts to reduce dangers, and efforts by institutions – whether governments, markets, or civil society organisations – to follow through on negotiated agreements.

Why Should Anyone Care?

That the world has not come to a fiery end in the 70 years since nuclear weapons proliferation, doesn’t mean it never will. The Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or NPT which came into force way back in 1970 was one of the initial steps taken to put a curb on the nuclear weapons. More countries have adhered to the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, which signifies that world leaders have taken the danger seriously and made some efforts to curb it.

As long as Earth’s climate continues to change, the temperature continues to rise, we are at risk of suffering the potential consequences such catastrophic floods, heat waves, extended droughts, changes in growing seasons, sea-level rise, and fishery die-off which could pose a fatal threat to humanity. Some of this is already happening, and there are scientists who argue that the time in which to change course has already past.

In an interview, the current CEO of the Bulletin stated that the condition has been getting worse in the past 10 years. Things have steadily gone downhill. The clock has moved faster than it’s previous years.

As the board urges in their report, let’s #RewindTheDoomsdayClock! Before it’s too late.

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