What time is it? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced on Thursday, January 24th that the symbolic Doomsday Clock is indicating two minutes to midnight.
According to the The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ website, the NGO was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” The organization’s early years chronicled the dawn of the nuclear age and the birth of the scientists’ movement, as told by the men and women who built the atomic bomb and then lobbied with both technical and humanist arguments for its abolition.
Today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an independent, nonprofit organization. With their international network of board members and experts, they assess scientific advancements that involve both benefits and risks to humanity, with the goal of influencing public policy to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.
The Doomsday Clock was first set in place in 1947 as a metaphor meant to measure how close humanity is to destroying civilization. Every year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists releases a new report showing the current situation in the world and setting the clock’s hands based on the world’s level of vulnerability, midnight representing an apocalyptic catastrophe.
The idea originated from the prospect of the United States facing the Soviet Union in a nuclear arm’s race. In 1947, the Clock was set to seven minutes to midnight by Martyl Langsdorf because she claimed it looked good to her eye. Since then, a board of environmental experts and scientists have agreed to get together twice a year to discuss where the clock’s hands should be moved.
The clock has usually moved in a matter of minutes, except in 2017 and 2018 where it has moved 30 seconds closer to minutes every year respectively. In January 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists cited, among other things, climate change, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and Donald Trump as causes. In more details, the Executive Director Rachel Bronson explained at the announcement that “the language used in the United States during the presidential elections and around the globe as well as a growing disregard of scientific expertise” were causes of concern that stood out to the board. This is of particular concern as growing disregard of scientific expertise, especially by an American president, has never been cited as a doomsday factor until then.
The farthest humanity has gotten from midnight is seventeen minutes to midnight. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, 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.
In 1949, following the Soviet Union’s first successful test of an atomic bomb, the clock was reset from seven minutes to three minutes to midnight. The closest it has gotten to midnight is two minutes to midnight, last set to this time in 1953 as both the United States and the Soviet Union had both tested their first thermonuclear weapons within six months of one another. More recently, in 2018, the clock was set to this time again largely due to nuclear risk.
In 2019, the front page of the Clock’s webpage reads “A new abnormal: it is still 2 minutes to midnight”, clearly indicating a failure of humanity to act on the disaster it is facing. This year’s report sets the time based on the recurrent fear of nuclear weapons, climate change and cybersecurity.
The message the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is extending mainly to governments is that this clock is not linear and while it is currently advancing closer to midnight, it can also move further away from this time.
It’s not doomsday yet. And on this clock, we can turn back time.
Par Sandra Zaki, rédactrice adjointe