The 2023 Doomsday Clock is displayed before of a live-streamed event with members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Credit - Anna Moneymaker—Getty Images
The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic tracker that represents the likelihood of human-made destruction, was updated Tuesday to 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it’s ever been. It was the first time the clock had been updated since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The Doomsday Clock was first published in 1947 by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group formed to discuss the threat of nuclear war. The clock has since been updated 24 times. The closer the clocks’ hands move toward midnight, the closer humanity supposedly moves toward self-inflicted destruction. As well as assessing risks from nuclear war, the scientists incorporate dangers from climate change, bioweapons and more.
“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said Tuesday.
“90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly. The US government, its NATO allies and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore all of them to their fullest ability to turn back the Clock,” Bronson added.
History of the Doomsday Clock
Scientists at the Bulletin evaluate the Doomsday Clock every January. The clock began at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 and wasn’t moved until 1949 to three minutes when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. In 1991, the clock had its furthest time from catastrophe when it was set to 17 minutes to midnight as the Cold War cooled down.
The clock’s hands most recently inched close to disaster in 2020, at 100 seconds to midnight, due to geopolitical tensions and climate crises. Ban-Ki Moon, former U.N. Secretary General, helped unveil it then and added: “Leaders did not heed the Doomsday Clock’s warnings in 2020. We all continue to pay the price.”
The clock had stayed at 100 seconds in 2021 and 2022. Decisions to move the clock’s hands rest with the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board who consult with experts across the organization’s scopes of science, technology and risk assessment, including Nobel laureates, scholars and policy analysts.
Ninety seconds to midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained in an announcement Tuesday that the decision to move the clock’s hands stems largely from the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago and the increased risk of nuclear escalation. The group was also influenced by the climate crisis and “the breakdown of global norms and institutions” needed to combat the risks of advanced technology and biological threats like COVID-19.
The explanation took into account the risk of nuclear escalation between the U.S. and Russia and noted how China, North Korea, Iran and India have all also expanded their nuclear capabilities in recent years. The climate crisis was also a key concern because of the rise in carbon emissions and extreme weather events. The Bulletin is also concerned about ”cyber-enabled disinformation” and its threat to democracy, as well as infectious diseases and biosecurity.
“The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity. We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and liveable planet,” said Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders, an NGO, and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The science is clear, but the political will is lacking. This must change in 2023 if we are to avert catastrophe. We are facing multiple, existential crises. Leaders need a crisis mindset.”