Time check: Examining the Doomsday Clock’s move to 100 seconds to midnight

Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released a statement that the group’s Science and Security Board had moved the hands on the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward by 20 seconds to 100 seconds before midnight. Since the advent of the Doomsday Clock—even in the peak years of the Cold War—the clock’s minute hand has never before been advanced past the 11:58 mark.

In a statement on the change, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists President and CEO Rachel Bronson said:

As far as the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock are concerned, the world has entered into the realm of the two-minute warning, a period when danger is high and the margin for error low. The moment demands attention and new, creative responses. If decision makers continue to fail to act—pretending that being inside two minutes is no more urgent than the preceding period—citizens around the world should rightfully echo the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg and ask: “How dare you?”

Before 2017, the clock had not been at that mark since 1953—the year in which the United States and the Soviet Union both conducted atmospheric tests of their first thermonuclear bombs. Even during the Reagan years—during which the world came the closest it had ever come to a nuclear war—the clock was advanced only as far as three minutes before midnight. And in the fictional world of the original comic books, the clock never advanced past five minutes to midnight.

The sum of all fears

The reasons for adjustments to the time on the Doomsday Clock extend far beyond the risk of nuclear annihilation. Over the past two decades, concerns over nuclear proliferation and climate change have largely driven the ticking down of the clock. The last time the clock was set back a minute—in 2010—it was because of the perceived progress on climate change by the United Nations conference in Copenhagen and the ratification of the New START arms control agreement between the United States and Russia.

All of those good vibes have been erased over the last 10 years. And now, the Security Board has added a new reason for concern: cyberwarfare and other “disruptive” technologies.

“Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” the Science and Security Board members wrote in a joint statement. “The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Objectively measuring things like “international political infrastructure” is difficult. And not much has really changed since 2019, when the board decided to not move the Doomsday Clock’s hands. At that time, the board referred to the state of world security as a “new abnormal” and warned of the use of “cyber-enabled information warfare by countries, leaders, and subnational groups of many stripes.” The board also voiced concern about the impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence.

But the one thing that is measurable is the degree of inaction on climate change. As the US withdraws from the Paris climate agreement, the world as a whole has done little to meet the deadlines agreed to, with efforts to meet the numbers needed to keep average global temperature from increasing more than 2° Celsius falling well short. The most recent UN Climate Summit ended without any solid plans to move forward.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt

This year, the board stacked a few more “disruptive” technologies on the scales, with genetic engineering, synthetic biology, the mass collection of health and genomic data and their potential use in developing biological weapons among them. Concerns over AI-based weaponry and the incorporation of artificial intelligence into nuclear command and control systems—something harkening back to the 1982 film —were also cited. Russia field-tested an AI-based field command and control system last year, but there’s no particular evidence that any state or non-state actor is doing any of these things. Still, the board members are spooked by the possibility.

Then there’s the push for hypersonic weapons. Programs like the US Department of Defense’s Prompt Global Strike effort, the Air Force’s Advanced Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW)—”Arrow” and “Hacksaw”—and Russian and Chinese efforts to develop strategic and tactical hypersonic weapons are intended to create weapons that can’t be countered by current defenses and hit targets with great precision. These weapons “will severely limit response times available to targeted nations and create a dangerous degree of ambiguity and uncertainty, at least in part because of their likely ability to carry either nuclear or conventional warheads,” the board members noted.

That uncertainty could lead to quick escalation from conventional to nuclear conflict, they warned. “At a minimum, these weapons are highly destabilizing and presage a new arms race.” Combined with concerns about the militarization of space and the further automation of weapons and sensor systems “and the new, more aggressive military doctrines asserted by the most heavily armed countries,” they wrote, “could result in global catastrophe.”

Man in the loop

Certainly, these systems have contributed to an arms race of sorts. But none of them has been deployed. And older, less sophisticated systems pose just as great a threat given the level of current tensions in the world, as demonstrated by the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by an aging automated air defense system in Iran. The problem is not so much the technology as the people putting it to use.

Which is to say, the only thing that has really changed to push the countdown to Armageddon forward in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ estimation is the current world political situation. This situation is one of inaction and increased belligerence, and it has existed in one form or another (with a short “end of history” break in the early 1990s) since the first atomic weapon was detonated. The only difference from a year ago is that we’ve had more time to process the scope of the impact of social media campaigns and the fragmentation of consensus on topics of global importance.

As someone who served in the military during the Cold War—bobbing around the world’s seas with what I can neither confirm nor deny were nuclear land-attack cruise missiles in armored boxes about 100 feet away from my bed—I can say that we are a lot further away from a nuclear doomsday than we were in 1982.

Unfortunately, the lessons that the United States and Soviet Union learned from the precipice they gazed over in the early 1980s has not been effectively passed down to current world leadership in regards to arms control—or in regards to other existential threats. So perhaps it’s useful that the Doomsday Clock has been advanced 20 seconds, if only to remind us that the people in a position to do the most about things do not have an eye on the clock.

The US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the failure to renew the New START treaty or enter into other arms-control negotiations, the apparent collapse of the agreement to constrain Iranian nuclear research, and the derailing of negotiations with North Korea have all eroded the stability of the nuclear equation we were finally getting right when Reagan and Gorbachev blinked.

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