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Three Minutes to Save the World: Doomsday Clock Tells of Grim Future

[DIGEST: NPR, The Bulletin, CNN]

The end of the world can be measured and pinpointed down to the minute, a notion to thrill any budding science fiction writer. The countdown to nuclear proliferation and the loss of the current world order is more tangible than ever, thanks to the efforts of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and their Doomsday Clock.


History remembers 1945 as the year of the atom bomb. The two bombs which leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki were instrumental to disbanding the Axis Powers and ending World War II. However, this accomplishment has been eclipsed by the destruction these weapons left in their wake.

That such destructive power could be—and had been—successfully harnessed would fuel fears of a potential nuclear holocaust through the Cold War era. The ominously named clock was devised as a symbol to let humans know just how close they are to destroying each other—and the planet—with midnight representing global disaster on the apocalyptic scale.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock, having moved up two minutes to 11:57, are the closest they've been to midnight since 1984, a grim fact which might have inspired the late George Orwell to write a book or two. The seriousness of this development is not lost on Rachel Bronson, an executive director and publisher for the BAS, who says that the actions required to reduce the risk of global catastrophe have not been taken. “The Clock ticks,” she says. “Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately.”

Lawrence Krauss, a chair on the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors and a foundation professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics departments at Arizona State University, voices similar concerns when he says that despite positive news since the clock was moved forward a year ago, “the major challenges the Bulletin laid out for governments then have not been addressed, even as the overall global challenges we need to face become more urgent.” He then goes on to say that the clock is an estimate “that the world is as close to the brink as it was in 1983

 when US-Russian tensions were at their iciest in decades.”

If geopolitical relations are icier than they've ever been, then what could have kept the Doomsday Clock from hitting the stroke of midnight outright? The BAS cites the Iran Nuclear Deal as one example. The deal, outlined by the Obama administration, bars Iran from pathways to acquire a nuclear weapon and heavily reduces the likelihood of future confrontations with the United States. Another example is the Paris climate summit in December 2015, which brought representatives from 196 nations together in a historic agreement to curb rising global temperatures by cutting down on climate change emissions. But according to the BAS, both of these positive developments have been eclipsed by the nuclear tensions between the United States, Russia and North Korea (which conducted its first hydrogen bomb test) and the daunting task of “averting drastic climate change.”

The organization has decided not to move the hands of the clock in 2016, in a bid to strengthen relations between world leaders who “continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.” World leaders, in fact, says Kenette Benedict, another executive director for the BAS, “have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.”

Catastrophe has a number, too. There are, as of this writing, still 16,300 nuclear weapons in the world, each with the capability to obliterate life as we know it. Whether a nuclear attack is sudden or planned is irrelevant: There can be no “meaningful medical or humanitarian response,” according to Dr. Lynn Ringenberg, who is the current president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Dr. Lynn Ringenberg. Credit: Source.

She notes that the issues plaguing America's nuclear security forces, from cheating scandals to low morale, place the entire world at risk. Humanity cannot depend on its good luck thus far, either. Even a regional war between two neighboring countries would have “profound health impacts” on the rest of humanity, and the climatic effects would trigger a nuclear famine with the potential to annihilate world agriculture. “It has become,” Dr. Ringenberg concludes, “evident that these weapons have no military unity and are too dangerous to keep around.”

Barely two months into 2016, this grim news serves as a reminder of the hard work which lies ahead, from emboldening opposing nations to pursue more diplomatic relations to taking the necessary steps to ensure that there is still a planet—and a safe home—for generations to come.