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Catastrophe countdown: New time for Doomsday

Humanity has moved a step closer to destruction, scientists behind the Doomsday Clock have warned.

The predicted moment of our demise has been brought forward by 30 seconds on the metaphorical timepiece used since 1947 to demonstrate the risk of global catastrophe.

We are now two-and-half-minutes away from midnight. In 2015, the clock was brought two minutes forward, taking us to three minutes to midnight.

Climate change, nuclear proliferation, nationalism and President Donald Trump’s “disturbing” comments have been cited by the clock’s keepers as the greatest pressures on humanity’s existence.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announces a change to its Doomsday Clock at the Washington D.C National Press Club.
Image Caption:
The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists reveals a change to its Doomsday Clock in Washington

The clock is maintained by the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, which was founded by concerned US scientists involved in the Manhattan Project that developed the world’s first nuclear weapons during World War II.

In 1947, the Bulletin group established the Doomsday Clock to provide a simple way of demonstrating the danger to Earth and humanity posed by nuclear war. They adopted the ‘minutes from midnight’ idea because it reflected both a “doomsday” midnight and the countdown of a nuclear attack.

It is now as close to midnight as it has been since the darkest days of the Cold War.

A cover of the Bulletin from January 1984
Image Caption:
The cover of the Bulletin’s January 1984 issue

The decision to move the clock is made by a group including 15 Nobel laureates. It considers a wide range of factors before adjusting the clock.

At the announcement in Washington DC the organisation said there was “little appetite for cuts” to CO2 emissions despite the world “continuing to warm”, that “serious arms control negotiations are nowhere to be seen” and that “trusted sources of information came under attack”.

“Words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change,” it says.

“Even though he has just now taken office, the President’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

Bulletin cover from June 1947
Image Caption:
An early Bulletin cover from June 1947

Minutes from midnight – how the doomsday dials have moved since 1947

:: 1947: Seven minutes to midnight. “As the Bulletin evolves from a newsletter into a magazine, the Clock appears on the cover for the first time. It symbolises the urgency of the nuclear dangers that the magazine’s founders – and the broader scientific community – are trying to convey to the public and political leaders around the world.”

:: 1949: Three minutes to midnight. “The Soviet Union denies it, but in the fall (autumn), President Harry Truman tells the American public that the Soviets tested their first nuclear device, officially starting the arms race.”

:: 1953: Two minutes to midnight. “After much debate, the United States decides to pursue the hydrogen bomb, a weapon far more powerful than any atomic bomb. In October 1952, the United States tests its first thermonuclear device, obliterating a Pacific Ocean islet in the process; nine months later, the Soviets test an H-bomb of their own.”

:: 1960: Seven minutes to midnight. “Political actions belie the tough talk of ‘massive retaliation’. For the first time, the United States and Soviet Union appear eager to avoid direct confrontation in regional conflicts such as the 1956 Egyptian-Israeli dispute.”

:: 1963: Twelve minutes to midnight. “After a decade of almost non-stop nuclear tests, the United States and Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which ends all atmospheric nuclear testing.”

: 1968: Seven minutes to midnight. “Regional wars rage. US involvement in Vietnam intensifies, India and Pakistan battle in 1965, and Israel and its Arab neighbours renew hostilities in 1967.Worse yet, France and China develop nuclear weapons to assert themselves as global players.”

:: 1969: Ten minutes to midnight. “Nearly all of the world’s nations come together to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

:: 1972: Twelve minutes to midnight. “The United States and Soviet Union attempt to curb the race for nuclear superiority by signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (Salt) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.”

:: 1974: Nine minutes to midnight. “South Asia gets the Bomb, as India tests its first nuclear device. And any gains in previous arms control agreements seem like a mirage.”

:: 1980: Seven minutes to midnight. “Thirty-five years after the start of the nuclear age and after some promising disarmament gains, the United States and the Soviet Union still view nuclear weapons as an integral component of their national security.”

:: 1981: Four minutes to midnight. “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hardens the US nuclear posture.”

:: 1984: Three minutes to midnight. “US-Soviet relations reach their iciest point in decades. Dialogue between the two superpowers virtually stops.”

:: 1988: Six minutes to midnight: “The United States and Soviet Union sign the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first agreement to actually ban a whole category of nuclear weapons.”

:: 1990: Ten minutes to midnight. “As one Eastern European country after another (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania) frees itself from Soviet control, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev refuses to intervene, halting the ideological battle for Europe and significantly diminishing the risk of all-out nuclear war.”

:: 1991: Seventeen minutes to midnight: “With the Cold War officially over, the United States and Russia begin making deep cuts to their nuclear arsenals. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty greatly reduces the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the two former adversaries.”

:: 1995: Fourteen minutes to midnight: “Hopes for a large post-Cold War peace dividend and a renouncing of nuclear weapons fade.”

:: 1998: Nine minutes to midnight. “India and Pakistan stage nuclear weapons tests only three weeks apart.”

:: 2002: Seven minutes to midnight: “Concerns regarding a nuclear terrorist attack underscore the enormous amount of unsecured – and sometimes unaccounted for – weapon-grade nuclear materials located throughout the world.”

:: 2007: Five minutes to midnight. “The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity.”

:: 2010: Six minutes to midnight: “We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons. The dangers posed by climate change are growing, but there are pockets of progress.”

:: 2012: Five minutes to midnight: “The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected. In the face of
such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges.”

:: 2015: Three minutes to midnight: “Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and out-sized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”

:: 2016: Still three minutes to midnight. “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon. That probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act – immediately.”

:: 2017: Two and a half minutes to midnight. “”As we marked the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, this year’s Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.”

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