It is 90 seconds to midnight in the Doomsday Clock

It is 90 seconds to midnight in the Doomsday Clock


10 | 06 | 2024


Reportedly we are closer to the world’s collapse than at any time from the creation of the nuclear bomb

In the image

Poster and video footage produced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [BoAS]

Known as a metaphorical symbol of humanity’s vulnerability to existential risks, the Doomsday Clock serves as a reminder of the critical challenges that must be addressed to ensure the security of humanity. Developed in 1947, this tool administered by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, managed to point out the presence of nuclear weapons in both the United States of America and the Soviet Union. It ended up elevating the level of danger to humanity, as both nations engaged in a nuclear arms race. The presence of such a tool serves as a powerful symbol, emphasising the imminent threat of human induced global disaster, mainly through nuclear warfare. However, it also presents an opportunity to re-evaluate and reform global nuclear policies, fostering a more secure and peaceful world.

The most recent resets of the clock have been disturbing: two minutes to midnight in 2018 (the same amount of time than in 1953-1959, the previous most risky period), 100 seconds to midnight in 2020... and just 90 seconds to midnight since 2023.

Some insight into the Doomsday Clock

Aiming to warn the public about the insecurity of nuclear weapons, the concept of the Doomsday Clock originated in 1947 with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Their main aim was to engage with other scientistsregarding the moral and social obligations associated with nuclear energy, and at the same time educate the general public about the potential implications.

Decisions regarding the clock’s time were initially made by the Bulletins editor in chief, Eugene Rabinowithch, a Russian American Physicist also known as a prominent leader in the global disarmament movement. Such decisions were—and are still—based on discussions with other scientists and government experts considering both political and technological developments.

Upon his death in 1973, the Science and Security Board (SASB) of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists assumed responsibility for changing the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand. It is important to point out that the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991 reset the clock to 17 minutes to midnight, the furthest it had ever been, as it was an agreement to reduce both nations nuclear weapons arsenals.

Nowadays, the board is composed of nuclear technology and climate science specialists, who meet twice a year to assess global circumstances and decide whether to adjust the clock.

Not just about nukes: Other human threats considered

Over time, the clock’s scope has evolved and now concentrates on three primary areas: firstly, climate change; secondly, disruptive technologies, and lastly, nuclear risk. The common thread linking these subjects is the fundamental belief that, since humans are responsible for creating these issues, we have the ability to manage them.

In terms of climate change, the year 2023 marked the hottest year on record and rising global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite The Paris Agreement sought to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, the world is at risk of limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level given the inadequate emission reduction commitments. Present attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fall short, with the poorest people suffering the most from climate change. Without significant improvements in mitigation measures, human suffering from climate change will continue to worsen.

Moreover, concerning biological threats, the recent developments in life sciences and related technologies are increasing the likelihood of both unintentional and intentional abuse of biological materials. The merging of artificial intelligence with biological technology has raised worries about the improper use of biology, since artificial intelligence may enable the development of hazardous biological entities. In October 2023, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, signed an Executive order seeking to ensure a “safe, secure, and trustworthy AI,” which calls for guidelines to prevent AI from developing hazardous biological material. Yet, these norms are not legally binding and provide restricted deterrence.

Also, we must consider the accidental laboratory discharges and infectious illnesses which both contribute to the hazards. These hazards are exacerbated by factors such as deforestation, urbanisation, climate change, and inadequate monitoring of biosafety laboratories.

In 2023, the major development in terms of technological disruption was arguably artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it has the capacity to corrupt information ecosystems, posing a threat to democracy. However, it is rapidly being employed in the military. Despite there being regulatory measures implemented globally, issues still remain.

With reference to the nuclear threats, last year has witnessed difficult ties amongst powerful nations, all of which are engaged in modernising their nuclear arsenal, while the arms control framework collapses. Going back to the Russian conflict in Ukraine, in terms of nuclear threats, it continues to be considered a source of tension, mostly because of the possibilities of using nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in February 2023 that he would suspend the new START treaty, which was the only remaining Russia-U.S arms reduction treaty. Amongst other concerning developments, North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program, by testing a solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and prompting South Korea to seek greater US commitment.

Overall, it signifies the potential for a worldwide catastrophe, particularly from climate change, disruptive technologies and, of course, nuclear risk. However, it also offers an opportunity to review global policies, promoting a safer global environment. 

How dangerous is the world in 2024?

This particular setting of 90 seconds to midnight in 2023, and kept there after the risks evaluation carried out at the beginning of 2024, showcases major implications for humanity as a whole. It serves as a warning regarding the dangers facing humanity, emphasising the need for immediate action to mitigate hazards. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) seeks to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation, promote peaceful nuclear cooperation, and achieve nuclear disarmament. It operates on the principle that non-nuclear states refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, while nuclear states commit to peaceful nuclear cooperation and disarmament, ultimately aiming to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. This treaty should be used to help address disputes related to nuclear weapons and technology. By establishing a clear definition on the meaning of a nuclear threat, it would facilitate the definition of such within the NPT framework. That way both global security and stability can be enhanced in the face of nuclear threats.

The global nuclear landscape is witnessing rising geopolitical tensions and conflicts in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Such disputes have disturbed established norms of international relations, regained geopolitical competition amongst major countries and, as a result, unity of international alliances has been questioned. Handling these issues calls for an integrated strategy that prioritises diplomacy, conflict resolution and the promotion of both international cooperation and stability.

An education and policy-making tool

The public’s perception has a major effect on nuclear policy and disarmament initiatives. Through the interpretation of the Doomsday Clock, the population’s beliefs and opinions about nuclear weapons—and other relevant topics, as previously discussed—are reflected. These viewpoints vary vastly among nations and are evolving over time, and they are affected by nuclear accidents and ongoing debate over climate change.

The clock movement is a call to both governments and society to take control of these potential hazards and strive towards a better future for all. In order to shape our world to be more secure and sustainable, public awareness and education regarding such dangers is crucial. Considering public opinions and perspectives regarding nuclear weapons and policy is critical for policymakers to make educated decisions that reflect popular sentiment while also promoting nuclear control and non-proliferation efforts.

Further opportunities for global change

International cooperation and diplomatic engagement are key to overcoming these issues. Amongst the many sources that contribute to the mitigation of such risks, firstly, through The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), global dialogue on nuclear security has been facilitated, bringing together government officials, and international organisations to define a global nuclear system. Through this initiative, a vision is created in order to strengthen the nuclear security system globally. Moreover, the NTI highlights the significance of taking concrete measures in order to decrease nuclear risk, once again emphasising the need of international cooperation to make this possible. 

In accordance with these principles, the People’s Republic of China proposes a joint opposition to both the use and threat of nuclear weapons. China presents itself as striving to reduce strategic risks through international cooperation. In addition, Beijing says it is in favour of gradual nuclear disarmament, and at the same time adhering to norms aimed at enforcing global strategic stability. Overall, this emphasises the need for both verifiable and irreversible reductions amongst the nuclear arsenal by means of diplomatic efforts. Such a plan emphasises the need of adhering to international treaties—like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and, more importantly, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—in order to achieve worldwide collaboration. The Doomsday Clock points out how near we are to a global disaster caused by a nuclear conflict. Nonetheless, it presents an opportunity to reassess global nuclear strategies, shifting towards a safer and peaceful world.

The role of the Doomsday Clock in advocacy and awareness

The Doomsday Clock has had a significant effect on policy deliberations, promoting actions aimed at reducing nuclear threats. Its position relative to midnight has evolved as a baseline for judging leaders’ competence to control nuclear arms, while also putting pressure on countries and international organisations to take tangible steps to address existential concerns.

Other than the role it plays in public dialogue and policy, the Doomsday Clock has influenced artistic representations in a variety of disciplines. The symbolism has inspired artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore topics like the apocalypse, survival, and the human condition. The clock has long been a symbol of cultural popularity, appearing in everything from comic novels to video games.

Moreover, it has served as the topic of several artworks, such as sculptures and installations, with the goal of provoking thought and conversation about humanity’s future. In short, the Doomsday Clock is an effective instrument for raising awareness and encouraging action against nuclear and existential threats. Its influence on public debates, governmental decisions, and artistic endeavours inspires continued efforts to build a more secure and sustainable world for all.

The global task of confronting global threats

Overall, this metaphorical symbol serves as an indicator of humanity’s vulnerability to existential threats and simultaneously acts as a call to action for global collaboration and policy reform. The role of the Doomsday Clock has expanded, surpassing its original purpose of warning us about nuclear risks. Currently, it addresses a broader spectrum of critical concerns, underscoring the importance of both humanity's interconnectedness and comprehensive solutions.

Agreements such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and organisations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) provide platforms for collaboration, with the aim of reducing risks and enhancing global security. As we continue to confront the various challenges of the 21st century, we must heed its call to action and work together to build a more secure and resilient world for future generations.