Last Wednesday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in December, unveiled the latest installment of its famous “Doomsday Clock,”which purports to measure how close the world is catastrophe. When it first appeared in 1947, at the dawn of the nuclear age, its hands were set at 7 minutes to midnight. In the intervening years, it’s moved both closer to and farther from that witching hour. The most comforting installment appeared in 1991, amid the sudden end of the Cold War, when the Clock was reset to a sanguine 17 minutes to midnight.
That optimism has long since receded, replaced by pervasive foreboding. Last year, the Bulletin’s scientists moved the Clock’s hands to just 100 seconds to midnight, the closest ever to apocalypse. Last week, they left it unchanged, signaling their continued alarm. In making their call, the scientists cited the dangerous confluence of a fraying nuclear order, accelerating climate change and a raging pandemic.
It’s tempting to dismiss the Doomsday Clock as a gimmick trotted out each year by handwringing worrywarts with a vested interest in playing Chicken Little. The Clock’s very purpose, after all, is to instill fear, even existential dread, in the hopes of altering political behavior.
It’s also fair to question the thin methodologythat informs the annual decision to advance—or roll back—the hands of time. The Bulletin’s two criteria for setting the Clock, according to its president and CEO, Rachel Bronson, are whether humanity is safer or at greater risk compared to both last year and the past 75 years. Such judgments are inherently subjective, especially since there are no published indicators against which progress—or setbacks—are to be measured. Complicating matters, the Bulletin’s timekeepers must weigh the relative weight of disparate threats unfolding over different time frames, in arriving at a single risk assessment.
Despite these limitations, the Doomsday Clock still serves useful purposes. It helps gauge the world’s success in controlling nuclear weapons, the Bulletin’s original preoccupation. It captures society’s evolving conceptions of other potential catastrophic risks, including some, like global warming or the malicious use of artificial intelligence, that were scarcely conceived at the dawn of the atomic age. Finally, it places scientists at the forefront of national debates over risk, at a time when rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories are undermining shared realities.
It was the specter of nuclear annihilation, of course, that led a group of physicists to establish the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Those fears have hardly disappeared, as a second nuclear age is now well under way. The United States has launched a massive, $1 trillion program of nuclear modernization, and Russia and China are following suit. All three nations are developing a new generation of hypersonic weapons, as well as expanding their competition in outer space and cyberspace, undermining the foundations of strategic stability and increasing the dangers of miscalculation. Meanwhile, India, Pakistan and North Korea are expanding their own arsenals, while Iran continues enrichment activities, raising the risk of a nuclear cascade in the Middle East. Frustrated by the slow pace of disarmament and the threats of proliferation, a group of non-nuclear weapons states last month brought the new U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons into force. Without the participation of nuclear powers or their allies, however, it amounts to little more than a cri de coeur, in the words of Laura Holgate of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Whether the world moves in a more hopeful direction this year depends partly on the United States.
The second threat bringing the world so close to midnight is climate change. Although carbon emissions are estimated to have declined by as much as 7 percent in the pandemic-induced recession of 2020, they are poised to rebound sharply as more economic recoveries take hold. Despite COVID-19, last year tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, driving massive wildfires in California, Australia, and the Amazon, and catastrophic hurricanes and typhoons in the Atlantic and Pacific. Global emissions are on track to increase gradually over the next decade, just when they need to decline at least 7 percent annually to avoid a disastrous rise in global temperatures.
Finally, there is the pandemic. Although COVID-19 does not threaten human civilization, it has already killed 2 million people and infected 101 million, while exacting a grievous toll on economies and communities worldwide. It also highlights the world’s potential vulnerability to a far more virulent biological threat, whether naturally occurring or human-made. The pandemic has exposed the parlous state of multilateral cooperation, as well and the obstacles to political leadership in an era when objective truth is up for grabs. The Bulletin assails the rise of misinformation, describing the current “infodemic” as a powerful “threat multiplier.”
Whether the world moves in a more hopeful direction this year depends partly on the United States. In unveiling the Doomsday Clock last week, Bronson repeatedly castigated now former President Donald Trump for having exacerbated all three catastrophic threats, including by elevating nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy, denying climate change and bungling the pandemic response. The sole silver lining was the election of a new president who believes in science and is committed to multilateral cooperation.
While the United States cannot eliminate these global risks on its own, Joe Biden seems determined to move the world away from midnight. Last week, he persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START—which the Trump administration had called “deeply flawed” and threatened to let expire, after withdrawing from two other long-standing arms control agreements with Russia. Biden signed a raft of executive orders to combat the “existential threat” of climate change, describing the effort as “an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.” He also unveiled a sweeping COVID-19 response plan reaffirming U.S. membership in the World Health Organization and endorsing U.S. participation in COVAX, a multilateral scheme to foster the joint development and equitable sharing of vaccines.
Now the hard part begins. On nuclear weapons, Biden’s administration has a daunting agenda, which includes reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, dissuading North Korean nuclear adventurism, and securing a successful outcome of this year’s annual review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, known as the NPT. On climate change, Biden must secure ambitious global commitments at his just-announced Earth Day summit on April 24, in advance of the U.N.’s next, pivotal climate change conference, in Glasgow later this year. Finally, Biden will need to spearhead reforms to the WHO to ensure that it has the capacities and authorities it needs when the next pandemic strikes, as it inevitably will.
Given the multiple global crises confronting Biden, and the massive agenda his administration has embraced, its seems clear that the president already knows what time it is—with or without the Doomsday Clock.