Atomic doomsday clock closer to midnight than ever. But is it really?

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On Jan. 24, 2023, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved the symbolic “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds to “midnight”. Since 1947, The Clock has served as an indicator for what scientists perceive as the risk of a man-made catastrophe; the more time there is to “midnight” the lesser the risk, the less time the greater, etc. While some have taken news of this closer-than-ever annual estimate to be a grim prediction, others guffawed, either out of apathy, self-politicization  or the BAS’ previous estimates resulting in inconsistent risk measurements. The Clock was set to 12 minutes to midnight in 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, considered by many to be the most dangerous moment in Cold War History. In 1984, The Clock was set to 3 minutes, one year following what some historians and experts have considered one of the most dangerous periods in modern human history, with hostile rhetoric on both sides of the Iron Curtain and military exercises being perceived as genuine moves towards a nuclear attack.  

A clock outside Main Hall. Photo by Alana Melvin.

Despite these various flashpoints in Cold War history, the BAS has set their Clock on a continual course from 6 minutes in 2010 all the way down to 90 seconds this year. In 2020 (it should be noted before the pandemic), the BAS set the Clock at 100 seconds, claiming that increased cyberthreats, lack of action on climate change, and fake news, were extremely dangerous, and arguably even more dangerous than actual nuclear warfighting force movements between two of the most combative administrations of the Cold War era, the US Reagan administration and the Soviet Andropov government. This is not even to mention the time when during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, the Nixon administration (without Nixon’s approval as he was apparently temporarily comatose) ordered US forces to go to an increased state of readiness for both conventional and nuclear war in response to a Soviet threat to unilaterally force Israel into a ceasefire, i.e. invade. In response, Soviet forces went on heightened readiness but did not choose to escalate. Both sides deescalated following a ceasefire between Israel and ta number of nations in the Arab world. The BAS blithely set their Clock in 1974 to 9 minutes, citing no knowledge of the events that had transpired or even any indication of the increased military movements and political tensions, simply citing an Indian nuclear test as concerning, but expressing nothing on the Yom Kippur War nor the superpowers monitoring it having increased conventional and nuclear warfighting mobilization as a result of it.  

The BAS has cited that the rise of greater technologies and the spread of its more negative aspects, such as fake news, disinformation, as well as the lack of action on climate change makes the world more likely to fall into a man-made catastrophe, but is it? Three of the most dangerous moments in the late 20th century since the Clock’s founding were passed over, but when something that does not involve the genuine risk of a nuclear misfire, a shootdown of a spy plane, or tank divisions clashing with each other on the Fulda Gap in Germany over bad communication, the BAS reacted with alarms ringing. Yes, climate change and increasing technological problems are becoming greater problems for the world and do warrant our undivided attention. But does it really make the chance of the world ending by our own hands more likely by the second, especially compared to actual conflicts between nuclear-armed powers? The current war in Ukraine has justifiably increased the tensions, as compared to during the Cold War, there is a far more unstable and ultranationalist state in Russia. Nuclear movements compared to the actual Cold War have been light, given that the state of Russia is far more dangerous, this risk assessment seems warranted. Recent developments such as dangerous rhetoric and the sending of Western tanks from NATO states for Ukraine have however only intensified fear of a more extreme Russian reaction. The BAS has made many bad risk assessments, but that doesn’t mean it should be fully written off now. Perhaps, as we hope all people should, it will learn from its errors and pursue a more consistent and sensible policy and goal for the future.