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Editorial & Opinion

Worsening of nuclear and climate conditions advance Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight



We’re not supposed to be here; we’re not supposed to utter the truth about the power of mankind to destroy itself,” said Mary Robinson.

On January 23 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, closer than it has ever been since its inception in 1947. Below is a link to a video recording of this year’s event; a short summary follows.

Introducing the event, Rachel Bronson, Atomic Scientists President and CEO, introduced the 2020 clock setting (17:35): “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets the Doomsday Clock each year to help answer the question: is humanity safer or at greater risk this year compared to last year?”

Bronson reminded the audience that in 2018 the Doomsday Clock was set to two minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1953. She went on to say: (18:19): “When the board kept the clock at two minutes to midnight in 2019, we argued then that the global situation was abnormal and that this new abnormal was simply too volatile and too dangerous to accept as a continuing state of world affairs. Today we feel no more optimistic. In fact, both the nuclear and climate conditions are worsening.”

Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Jerry Brown, former Governor of California, revealed the 2020 Doomsday Clock time. (20:45)

Robert Rosner, Chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board and former Director of Argonne National Laboratory, had the following to add (22:52): “The fact that the Doomsday Clock hands now sit a mere 100 seconds from midnight signals really bad news. Indeed, what we called the new abnormal last year, a dismal state of affairs in the realms of nuclear security and climate change, now has become an apparently enduring disturbing reality.”

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Sharon Squassoni – she specializes in nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and security policy – covered the nuclear portion of the Doomsday Clock setting. She mentioned (24:07): “I have to admit at first, we set the clock in November. This was before recent military actions by the United States and Iran, before Iran’s statement or threat that it might leave the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and before North Korea’s abandonment of talks with the United States.”

Recall that Iran’s most recent statement mark the apparent final stage of the country’s incremental retaliation for the United States.’s reneging on the July 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The now effectively dead deal was not approved by the United States Congress and therefore never became the Supreme Law of the Land subject to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. The United States withdrew from the deal in May of 2018: The Emperor giveth and the Emperor taketh away.

In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; Sharon Squassoni also reviewed the demise of nuclear arms treaties in recent years and the prospect for new ones (27:14):

  • The United States and Russia withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2019;
  • The United States has not yet agreed to extend New START, which limits United States and Russian deployment of strategic nuclear weapons. Russia has been requesting such extension since 2017;
  • The Open Skies Treaty is at risk; it provides aerial overflights to build confidence and global transparency; and
  • The United States, China and Russia disagree on pursuing negotiations about outer space missile and cyber space warfare.

All of the above sets the world up for the return to a dangerous arms race that will benefit only the weapons manufacturers and the politicians taking their campaign contributions. Within weeks after leaving the INF Treaty, the United States conducted a ground launch cruise missile test that would have violated the treaty. The timing of the event lent credibility to the mutual accusations that led to the demise of the INF.

Shivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, is a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute. He is also a lead author of the upcoming Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Kartha mentioned that during the depth of the last ice age the world was only a few degrees colder than it is currently. Seas were hundreds of feet lower. Indeed as Kartha stressed (32:02): “If humankind pushes the climate into the opposite of an ice age, whatever exactly that is, or even pushes the climate halfway there, we have no reason to be confident that such a world will remain hospitable to human civilization. To test the limits of Earth’s habitable temperature is madness. It’s a madness akin to the nuclear madness.”

Kartha reminded the audience of the devastating effects of the mushrooming global climate catastrophe. More of the same at an increasing rate is already baked into the climate system because of its delayed response to increased in greenhouse gas pollution (32:40): 

  • India was ravaged by record-breaking heat waves and by record-breaking floods;
  • Wildfires raged from the Arctic to Australia; and
  • Communities from Puerto Rico to Mozambique and the Philippines have been devastated by hurricanes.

Robert Latiff, a retired United States Air Force Major General and a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, discussed (35:44) the threats of information warfare and other disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic (over five times the speed of sound) weapons. As part of the “witches brew” that threatens to cause global conflict, Latiff also mentioned the newly created Space Force with its bipartisan funding in the FY2020 $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act. Recall that the full Rhode Island congressional delegation voted for this sustained bleeding to death of the nation.

Mary Robinson, as the Chair of the Elders, had this to say (43:15): “When Nelson Mandela founded the Elders in 2007, he spoke of the need to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”

She continued with the observation that (59:59): “Talking about what we’re talking about today is profoundly deviant to our contemporary culture. We’re not supposed to be here; we’re not supposed to utter the truth about the power of mankind to destroy itself.”

During the question and answer, Sam Hussaini, who covered the Plowshares trial in Georgia last October, asked (66:16) Mary Robinson about the role of civil resistance. He also asked for a response to the fact that organizations and the media are ignoring citizens who put their lives at risk in such acts of disruption. In her reply Mary Robinson said (72:11): “Two existential threats and we’re not on course to address either one; so we need disruption. You mentioned disruption on the nuclear side. I think I would prefer to focus particularly on disruption on the climate side. We see this disruption beginning to happen with children and young people and their #FridaysForFuture, with #ExtinctionRebellion, with some litigation etc. That’s a broad bottom-up pressure that’s being exerted on governments.”

Former California Governor, Jerry Brown, Executive Chair of the Bulletin stated what should be obvious but unfortunately is not to most (63:15): “We’re in it; it’s dire, but we’re not there yet. We can still pull back from the brink, but we have to do what we’re not doing. Whatever we’ve done to date, it is totally inadequate on nuclear, on climate and on the other dangerous technologies.”

The event did not make the connections that lead to the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign: to end (1) poverty, inequality, and systemic racism; (2) ecological devastation; and (3) the war economy and militarism. Deplorable as that may be, awareness is growing.

Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.

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