The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. Original members of the Board were a group of scientists who worked under the auspices of the Manhattan Project, the secret scheme responsible for developing the first nuclear weapons.
The clock is not used to make any real doomsday predictions; rather it measures “worry”—how worried we should be about the state of the world. Hence, it is a metaphor used to alert our leaders and the public about how close the world is to a potentially civilisation-ending catastrophe. The closer the hands of the clock are to midnight, the closer we are to total annihilation, with “midnight” representing doomsday.
The timescales of the Doomsday Clock are completely different from that of a real clock. As a hypothetical example, if it would take 100 years for climate change to melt all the ice in Greenland, then “one minute” on the clock could perhaps represent 100 years.
Changing the clock is not as simple as adjusting its hands. In January of each year, members of the Board, together with a dozen or so physicists (some Nobel laureates), scientists from other disciplines, including climate scientists and policy experts, get together to analyse threats to humanity’s survival and subsequently decide whether the clock will tick or not. Should it tick, then the direction and how far from midnight should the minute hand be moved is decided by the Board.
Since its inception, the clock has moved backwards and forwards 23 times—from 17 minutes to two minutes before midnight. It was initially set at seven minutes before midnight because back then, there was only one major threat to humanity: nuclear war. The clock was reset to two minutes before midnight in 1953, when the two superpowers, the USA and Soviet Union, tested hydrogen bombs within a few months of each other.
After the superpowers signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which put an end to nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in space and underwater, the clock was moved back to 12 minutes before midnight. It was reset to 17 minutes before midnight in 1991 after the Cold War was officially over. This was the farthest the clock has ever been from midnight.
The halcyon period of 17 minutes to midnight did not last long, though. In 1998, testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, combined with increased military spending throughout the world, prompted the Board to put the clock back within ten minutes of midnight, at 23:51. Between 2002 and 2007, the clock see-sawed between 23:53 and 23:55, mainly because of America’s withdrawal from the previously signed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the uncertainty of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In January 2012, President Barack Obama’s plan to end nuclear proliferation and curb greenhouse gas emissions raised cautious optimism and the clock was moved back to six minutes before midnight. However, because of the failure to reduce global nuclear weapons and the nonchalant attitude of our leaders toward climate change, the clock was moved forward in 2015 to three minutes before midnight.
Today, the clock is influenced by the “new abnormal,” which is described by the Board as a moment in which “fact is becoming indistinguishable from fiction, undermining our very abilities to develop and apply solutions to the big problems of our time.” The new abnormal also includes risks arising from climate change, as well as unpredictable behaviour of leaders like the US President Donald Trump, a blowhard who blusters when unsure what to say, and Kim Jong-un, the intriguing North Korean dictator.
After Trump’s “Fire and Fury” threat to North Korea in 2017, the Board thought that we are indeed closer to the apocalypse now than at any other time in the history of our civilisation. Moreover, because of the rising nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the unsteady state of geopolitical affairs that have gripped the world, the clock was advanced to two minutes before midnight in January 2018. Another reason given in favour of moving the clock so close to doomsday is the “failure of Trump and other world leaders to deal with the looming threats of climate change.”
As for climate change, the Board is taking a wait-and-see attitude. It is because they believe there is “admittedly” a fair amount of uncertainty about what is going to happen in the future and how soon. Nevertheless, the Board believes that civilisation would eventually be dreadfully affected by climate change, unless we make radical changes to our lifestyle and start phasing out the use of fossil fuels without further delay, thereby putting the world on a path to a stable climate. The clock’s hand will probably be moved forward, albeit not by a minute, if Trump is re-elected and continues to show his troubling propensity to discount or outright reject the conclusions of experts on climate science.
Even if we are spared the nuclear holocaust and utter devastation by climate change, a rapidly growing human population that more than doubled in the last 50 years could be a factor in the movement of the clock. It is quite likely that once the population reaches a “critical mass,” our resources—food, water and a whole lot more required for sustenance of life—will not be adequate enough to support life on Earth. As a result, famine and starvation will push the clock closer to midnight.
Finally, by keeping the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, the same as in 2018 and the closest it has ever been to doomsday, the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warns that it should not be taken as a sign of stability. Instead, it is a stark reminder for our leaders and citizens around the world that “the future of the world is now in extreme danger from multiple intersecting and potentially existential threats.” The longer world leaders and citizens ignore this new abnormal reality, it is more likely that our civilisation will soon experience a catastrophe of historic proportions.
Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham
University, New York, USA.