By Matt Novak
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced today that the Doomsday Clock, which represents our proximity to an apocalyptic event, will remain at three minutes to midnight. But that’s still terrifying.
“That decision is not good news but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change,” the group said in a statement.
In a world that hasn’t seen nuclear warfare in over 70 years, the so-called Doomsday Clock sounds like a joke. But when you look at the number of near-misses we’ve had throughout our nuclear history, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The Doomsday Clock is no fucking joke.
Yes, the Doomsday Clock is admittedly a gimmick that’s been used by the anti-nuclear proliferation group and its journal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, since 1947. But unlike other media-bait events, like “National Popcorn Day” or “Valentine’s Day,” this one actually matters.
The Doomsday Clock is a representation of the danger from threats like climate change, weapons technologies, and perhaps most importantly, the potential for nuclear war. The closest the clock has ever come to “midnight” was in 1953 when the Soviet Union conducted its own hydrogen bomb tests following tests by the United States. At that time the Doomsday Clock was two minutes to midnight.
“When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries,” the group said in a statement.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by a group of scientists who had participated in the Manhattan Project. They helped bring nuclear weapons technology to the world, and they were terrified about what they had helped unleash.
It’s easy to dismiss their warnings as over-the-top or foolish. After all, a nuclear weapon hasn’t been used in warfare since 1945. But since 1945 we’ve been one button push away from starting World War III. Whether it was a mistaken order given to a US Air Force Captain in 1962, or a computer simulation in 1979 falsely alerting NORAD to an incoming nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, we’ve had too many brushes with nuclear winter.
Despite our focus on other issues, nuclear proliferation and the security of the world’s nuclear stockpile should remain in the international consciousness. That’s what the Doomsday Clock is for. The tough part is that unlike the rhetoric of so many politicians, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by bombing our way out of it.
Questions like “What if ISIS gets a nuclear weapon?” or “What happens if China or Russia accidentally launch a first strike against the United States?” or even “What happens if the United States accidentally launches a first strike against a near-peer adversary?” aren’t questions that can be solved with an answer like build more bombs. You can’t bomb your way out of this particular threat. The bombs themselves, after all, are the threat.
It’s three minutes to midnight. So what do we need to do? According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs.
Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results.
Engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks.
Follow up on the Paris accord with actions that sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fulfill the Paris promise of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem.
Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.
Obviously all of those things aren’t something that can be achieved on an individual level. Take your reusable bags to the supermarket, and drive your electric car. But if the Doomsday Clock serves any purpose beyond that of a media gimmick, it’s to remind us that none of these issues can be addressed without global cooperation.
It’s three minutes to midnight. Good luck, humanity.