Science First Look

As 'Doomsday Clock' ticks closer to midnight, atomic scientists urge citizen action

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report indicates a number of threats to global security and lays out a path for citizens to affect change. 

From left, Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the International Crisis Group; David Titley, a nationally known expert in the field of climate, the Arctic, and national security; and Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors, participate in a news conference the at the National Press Club in Washington, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, announcing that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist have moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
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As the Doomsday Clock inches closer to midnight, will it inspire public officials and citizens to act?

On Thursday, atomic scientists reset the symbolic clock, which provides a graphic vision of the planet’s health and safety. It now stands at 2 minutes and 30 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to midnight – or disaster – in 64 years. Various political activities over the past year contributed to the decision to move the clock, the report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said. Chief among them were the expansion of nuclear arsenals worldwide, “little appetite” for further reductions in carbon emissions, and cyber threats.

The clock’s new position is not a reason to despair, the scientists emphasized: It’s a call to action. Every year, the Doomsday Clock “galvanizes a global debate,” getting people to think about the issues, wrote Bulletin executive director and publisher Rachel Bronson. By taking action on the issues outlined in the report, citizens can help reset the clock further away from midnight.

“I hope the debate engendered by the 2017 setting of the Clock raises the level of conversation, promotes calls to action, and helps citizens around the world hold their leaders responsible for delivering a safer and healthier planet,” wrote Dr. Bronson.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, which appeared on the first cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947. Ever since, it has served as a barometer for global stability and security, with the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board regularly resetting the clock in response to a changing political climate.

At 2 minutes and 30 seconds to midnight, the clock is the closest to midnight it has been since 1953, the beginning of the arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. It had previously been set at 3 minutes to midnight, a position that had remained steady since 2015. 

The 30-second advance of the clock – the first time that the clock has moved less than a full minute in any direction – was designed to account for advancing threats while recognizing that much still remains to be seen. President Trump in the United States and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin share much of the blame for apparent global instability, the scientists wrote, but they noted that Trump has only been in office for a few weeks and could still shift direction on issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change.

As always, nuclear threats featured prominently in the scientists’ calculations. India and Pakistan expanded their nuclear arsenals in 2016, while nuclear powers Russia and the US remain divided over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Mr. Trump has also encouraged nuclear proliferation, suggesting that South Korea and Japan should have nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, and criticizing the Iran nuclear deal.

While the Paris Agreement was a substantial step in the right direction, the scientists noted that global temperatures continued to rise in 2016, which became the hottest year on record. Nevertheless, world leaders showed “little appetite” for further emissions cuts when they met in Marrakech last year.

Meanwhile, technology “continues to outpace humanity’s capacity to control it,” they wrote, noting the potential for biological threats and citing US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the US election as evidence of the growing specter of cyber warfare.

In response, the report lays out a platform of demands for citizens to make on their governments, using tools like social media to make their voices heard. These include negotiation over nuclear weapons, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and calls for governments to act on sound scientific knowledge. If these demands were met, scientists say, it would increase the safety of the planet.

“Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way,” the report concludes.

Material from Reuters contributed to this report.