A raging pandemic. Infernos in the U.S. and Australia. A deadly insurrection as Congress worked to certify the results of a democratic election. Burgeoning weapons programs and billions upon billions spent on the modernization of nuclear arsenals, each capable of achieving unprecedented obliteration. A dizzying hack of government and business networks, and a rip current of mis- and disinformation.
Recent months have brought an inescapable avalanche of news, a buffet of bleak chyrons and attention-sucking phone pings and buzzes. News travels fast, and bad news more so. Is the world doomed, as people joked in 2020?
Not yet, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
In January, the bulletin – founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists involved with the Manhattan Project – unveiled the 2021 Doomsday Clock.
The ceremony conveys threats to humanity by illustrating just how close things are to a metaphorical midnight, the apocalypse hour. While the result is more gut check than hardcore statistical analysis or forecast, the timepiece has, since its 1947 debut, offered a foreboding perspective on world affairs.
A hazardous brew of nuclear weapons and climate change (existential threats, the bulletin says), the mainstreaming of conspiratorial drivel, a disregard for science and expertise, and a lackluster response to the coronavirus catastrophe, among other things, applied clockwise pressure to the clock’s hands.
“Civil order is a big part of our democracy,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Charles Munns, an Aikenite, “and in addition to external threats, there’re also these internal threats.”
Other factors pushed counterclockwise.
The election of a “president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems,” the bulletin argued in its lengthy explanation, which this year mentions the Paris Agreement and the New START arms-control pact with Russia. The latter was recently extended – an example, Munns suggested, of critical collaboration.
“I believe our security benefits from our participation in the world organizations and orders, and that clearly includes treaties,” Munns said. “Now, every treaty can be improved, and we should always work on improving them. But to not have them? That allows other countries to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.”
In 1947, the Doomsday Clock, now an iconic black-and-white quadrant with four dots, was set to 7 minutes to midnight. The hands have moved more than 20 times over the decades. They were farthest from annihilation – 17 minutes from midnight – in 1991; the Cold War had ended.
Over time, though, the hands have crept ever-closer.
“While the U.S. remains in a good position with respect to our national security, the world has fundamentally changed over the last two decades,” Munns said. “And so the situation is much different than what we’re accustomed to.”
Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements advised that the Doomsday Clock – an annual warning shot – should be heeded.
“Given that new nuclear weapons are being developed by the U.S. and Russia and that national policies are based on preparing for full-scale nuclear war and not simply on deterrence, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is right to raise the alarm about the ever-present risks we face from nuclear weapons,” said Clements, whose organization monitors energy- and defense-related matters.
The “global threat,” he continued, “is embodied right here at home in the proposed plutonium pit plant at the Savannah River Site, which would initially support pits for a new ground-launched nuclear missile and a submarine-launched warhead, provocative weapons that, if developed, could move the clock closer to midnight.”