Time check: Examining the Doomsday Clocks move to 100 seconds to midnight

Enlarge / The Doomsday Clock reads 100 seconds to midnight, a decision made by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, during an announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on January 23, 2020. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

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 Watchmen comic books, the clock never advanced past five minutes to midnight.

The sum of all fears

Video of the Doomsday Clock announcement today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

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

A still from <em>WarGames</em>, as the WOPR's artificial intelligence locks down the countdown to global nuclear annihilation.
Enlarge / A still from WarGames, as the WOPR's artificial intelligence locks down the countdown to global nuclear annihilation.MGM/UA Entertainment via the Hulton Archive

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 WarGames—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 degRead More – Source