Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight on Thursday amid increasing worries over nuclear weapons and climate change.
“The international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats — nuclear weapons and climate change,” they said at a news conference in Washington.
Each year — the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit based on the South Side of Chicago that sets the clock — decides whether the events of the previous year pushed humanity closer or further from destruction.
The symbolic clock is now two-and-a-half minutes from midnight — the closest it’s been to the symbolic midnight of apocalypse since 1953, when the hydrogen bomb was first tested.
Scientists blamed a cocktail of threats ranging from dangerous political rhetoric to the potential of nuclear threat as the catalyst for moving the clock closer towards doomsday, saying “the global security landscape darkened” in the past year.
The clock — a symbol created in 1947 by scientists at the University of Chicago — is described as an “indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and new technologies.”
That vulnerability worsened since the last yearly update, representatives of the publication and its board of sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates, said Thursday at a news conference in Washington, D.C.
“This year’s Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual…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,” said Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
While many threats played into the decision to move the clock 30 seconds forward from where it was in 2016, one person in particular prompted the scientists to act. The Bulletin pointed to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on nuclear weapons and other issues, as well as his stance on climate change.
“Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter,” David Titley and Lawrence M. Krauss of the Bulletin wrote in an New York Times op-ed piece.
Last year, the clock remained at three minutes from midnight. It was moved to three minutes in 2015, where it was previously at five minutes to midnight.
More from the announcement:
“The United States and Russia — which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen.
“North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases.
“The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal — but only somewhat. In the wake of the landmark Paris climate accord, the nations of the world have taken some actions to combat climate change, and global carbon dioxide emissions were essentially flat in 2016, compared to the previous year. Still, they have not yet started to decrease; the world continues to warm. “Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech.
“This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.
“The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board takes a broad and international view of existential threats to humanity, focusing on long-term trends. Because of that perspective, the statements of a single person — particularly one not yet in office — have not historically influenced the board’s decision on the setting of the Doomsday Clock.
“But wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats do affect the board’s decisions. And this year, events surrounding the U.S. presidential campaign — including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the U.S. election — have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago.
“The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute — something it has never before done — reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the U.S. president only a matter of days. Many of his cabinet nominations are not yet confirmed by the Senate or installed in government, and he has had little time to take official action.
“Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have disputed the basics of climate science.
“In short, 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.
“Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensified — yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”