By Dilpreet Raju
Scientists and leaders of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock on Tuesday to their closest ever position to midnight, a metaphorical barometer for how close the planet is to human-forced annihilation.
The hands now sit at 90 seconds to midnight. This is the first change in the clock’s movement since 2020, when the hands were at 100 seconds to midnight, also a record in the now 76-year run of the Doomsday Clock.
“We’re in a situation now where leaders aren’t doing what they need to and we need the public, desperately, to make sure they focus on key issues,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin, at the livestream announcement.
The closer to midnight, the closer to humanity’s threat of annihilation based on nuclear weapons, climate change and biological threats such as pandemic diseases.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started as the Atomic Scientists of Chicago just weeks after the conclusion of World War II in September 1945. The originators included University of Chicago researchers who worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.
The Atomic Scientists of Chicago released a first newsletter in December 1945 entitled the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” just months after the detonation of the first nuclear bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The bombings in Japan resulted in estimates of total death tolls that ranged from at least 110,000 to more than 200,000 dead, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The first Doomsday Clock announcement from the Bulletin came in 1947, at the start of the Cold War, with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was the director of the Manhattan Project, served as first chair of the Board of Sponsors at the Bulletin.
Members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board (SASB), which sets the time of the Doomsday Clock, referenced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as reason for more instability surrounding nuclear weapons and climate catastrophe.
“The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high,” Bronson said. “The war’s effects also undermine the world’s ability to combat climate change as countries dependent on Russian oil and gas have expanded their investment in natural gas.
“There is no clear path for forging a just peace that discourages future aggression under the shadow of nuclear threat,” she said.
Steve Fetter, associate provost of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland and SASB member, said at the announcement, “The war has challenged the nuclear order: the system of agreements and understandings that have been constructed over six decades to limit the dangers of nuclear weapons.”
Climate change remains an accelerating threat as well. John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin, in an interview with Medill Reports a few days before the hands moved, said there was a lack of accurate reporting on the supposed energy breakthrough at the National Nuclear Security Administration regarding fusion last month.
“That breakthrough is a scientific research breakthrough, but it has almost nothing to do with using fusion to generate electricity,” Mecklin said. “Way too many news outlets, including some major outlets, reported it as a breakthrough in using fusion to generate electricity and fight climate change.”
Daniel Holz, professor of astronomy, astrophysics and physics at the University of Chicago, emphasized in an interview with Medill Reports that while “physics is physics,” the achievement was completed as a part of research for nuclear arms testing.
“They did have a physics breakthrough. It was an important accomplishment,” Holz said. “But it’s not a sort of breakthrough in any way impacts our ability to have green energy. It’s not an engineering accomplishment that is on the road to a limitless source of green energy.
“This is a government that is focused on understanding nuclear weapons,” he said.
Holz, who is also a member of the SASB, said he tries to think of the decision-making process as an intellectual exercise, but once the reveal happens, emotional distance shrinks.
“It’s hard not to feel pretty awful,” Holz said. “This is not good news.”
Chicago Area Peace Action is one peace group of concerned citizens that has advocated for denuclearization in the U.S. and abroad. Charles Johnson, organizing director, said the group offers a place for those concerned to organize and act.
Johnson also emphasized the amount of funds going into nuclear arms research.
“Testing for these things has poisoned countless Indigenous communities. We just continue to invest huge amounts of money that could end homelessness, it could end hunger,” Johnson said.
Still, concerns about COVID-19 and the handling of infectious diseases have not waned.
“Events like COVID-19 can no longer be considered rare, once-in-a-century occurrences,” said Suzet McKinney, current member of the SASB and former executive director and CEO of the Illinois Medical District.
“The total number and diversity of rare infectious disease outbreaks has increased significantly over the past four years,” she said at the event. McKinney said more than half of those infectious outbreaks are zoonotic, meaning they originate in animals before transferring to humans.
The landscape of biological threats “makes clear that the international community needs to improve its ability to prevent disease outbreaks, detect them quickly and to respond effectively to limit their scope.” McKinney said. “Nearly three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world continues to feel the fallout from this disease.”
Mary Robinson is current chair of The Elders, an independent group of world leaders focused on human rights, peace and a sustainable world.
“We are now 90 seconds to midnight, the closest the clock has ever been to midnight. Wake up, leaders! That’s the call,” she said. “That’s why The Elders are urging a crisis mind to deal with the multiple crises: the nuclear crisis, the climate and biodiversity crisis, the pandemic crisis.”
“We need longer-term vision on the part of leaders,” Robinson said. “These years leading up to 2030, from a climate and biodiversity perspective, are probably the most important years in human history because either we will do what the scientists are telling us to do or we will condemn future generations to a terrible world. It’s unbelievable that we would do that.”
The only other member of The Elders in attendance at the announcement, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was Elbegdorj Tsakhia, former prime minister and president of Mongolia.
He emphasized the need for diplomatic intervention, and trust of scientific principles over those of policymakers.
“Science is not nationalist, science is universal,” Tsakhia said at the event.
Dilpreet Raju is a health, environment and science graduate student at Medill. You can follow him at @DilpreetRaju on Twitter.