90 seconds to midnight: what the Doomsday Clock means in 2023

Jan 26, 2023
The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor that warns the public about how close we are to destroying the world with dangerous technologies of our own making.

We are now at the most dangerous moment in history. We face multiple existential crises that are not under control, but growing more acute, while failures of leadership become more damning.

We have no time to lose.

Yesterday, in Washington DC, the international scientific and policy experts of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that they were moving the hands of the iconic Doomsday Clock forward from 100 to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been

They did so mainly because of the mounting dangers of Russia’s war on Ukraine. They say: “Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict – by accident, intention, or miscalculation – is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.”

Russia’s invasion not only violates the 1994 Budapest memorandum in which it solemnly declared to “respect the independence and sovereignty of the existing borders of Ukraine” and “refrain from the threat of war or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine …”, it has also brought the war to the heart of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactors, risking a radioactive catastrophe, and rebuffed efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure these plants.

They note that Russia’s war jeopardises the implementation and negotiation of a successor agreement to the last remaining treaty limiting nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States, new START, due to expire in Feb 2026.

The war in Ukraine is also undermining global efforts to combat climate change, as countries dependent on Russian oil and gas expand their investments in gas and seek to diversify suppliers, and international cooperation takes a hammering just when we need it most. Russia has also threatened targeting civilian Space X Starlink communication satellites, and actively suppresses truthful public information as well as widely spreading cyber-enabled disinformation.

The Board notes that while repeated Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war constitute the worst nuclear development over the last year, all nuclear-armed states are adding to the problem by expanding and modernising their nuclear arsenals.

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein, Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists who developed the first atomic weapons and rapidly became alarmed about their spread and the existential threat they posed to humanity, the first such threat of human making.

Designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf, the Doomsday Clock was launched in 1947—two years after the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is the best known and one of the most authoritative annual international assessments of how humanity is tracking on our biggest challenges. The Clock is set late every January after careful deliberations on humanity’s vulnerability to global catastrophe from nuclear weapons, global heating, biological threats, and disinformation and disruptive technologies. The time is set with input from the Bulletins’ Board of Sponsors, which includes ten Nobel laureates.

The clock started at 7 minutes to midnight, and has been moved 24 times since 1947. It was furthest from midnight, at 17 minutes to midnight, in 1991, when Cold War tensions eased and Russia and the US agreed to eliminate thousands of their nuclear weapons. Before today, it was closest to midnight, at 100 seconds to midnight, in 2020, where it remained until today. The new time indicates we are now at the most dangerous moment in history, facing multiple existential crises that are not under control but growing more acute, while failures of leadership become more damning.

The Clock provides informed and wise counsel to citizens and officials worldwide about our key challenges and where our collective priorities should lie. Of course, far too often such sober assessments of the seriousness of our predicament meet with denial, hand-wringing platitudes and excuses. The Statement explaining the Clock setting is intended and hoped to be a call for concerted action to citizens and governments, for bold, ethical leadership with a long-term view.

What are the main implications for Australia of the new Doomsday Clock setting? On the disruptive technologies front: protection of whistleblowers and a free media, strong regulation of disinformation, wilful misrepresentation and politics of hate and personal destruction enabled by cyber platforms, a strong human rights bill, and firmly opposing lethal autonomous weapons systems would be a good start.

On the biological threats front: strong financial and in-kind support for global pathogen and disease surveillance and rapid response capacity, particularly through strengthening the World Health Organisation, ensuring strong national public health laboratory and response capacities, that the planned national Centre for Disease Control is well-funded and independent, and keeping scientific evidence and experts at the centre of health policy would all help.

On global heating: substantially scaling up and accelerating our renewable energy transition, quickly ending public subsidies for fossil fuels, allowing no new fossil fuel exploitation projects, and contributing generously to international funds to support the poorest and most vulnerable countries to address the mounting toll from climate change impacts and accelerate their energy transitions, would go a long way.

On nuclear weapons, by far the most effective thing our government could do to walk its talk of support for a world free of nuclear weapons would be to join almost all our Pacific and southeast Asian neighbours in the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Right now this first ever treaty to prohibit the worst weapons of mass destruction is the only bright light in the otherwise darkening nuclear landscape. It is helping to delegitimise nuclear weapons and nuclear threats and drive divestment from profiteers that make these unacceptable weapons. It contains the only internationally agreed framework to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Joining the Treaty is a national Labor policy commitment, and it would be by far the most effective way for Australia to prove that any acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines, stationing of US B-52s in Australia, or any other military developments are not the thin end of the wedge for acquisition or stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia. Joining this treaty would put us firmly on the right side of history and involve ending our duplicitous and immoral justification for the possible use of nuclear weapons and assistance for their possible use, through facilities such as Pine Gap involved in the command, control and targeting of US nuclear weapons. It would end our tacit ‘do as we say not as we do’ encouragement for nuclear proliferation.

Our joining would sit proudly alongside all the other treaties banning indiscriminate and inhumane weapons such as biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions, that Australia has joined under governments both Labor and coalition. As New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand have already demonstrated, joining the nuclear ban treaty is entirely compatible with continuing non-nuclear military cooperation with nuclear-armed US, UK and France.

As former Irish President and UN human rights chief Mary Robinson said at the Clock announcement, the Doomsday Clock reminds us that citizen action, a crisis mindset and bold, ethical leadership are needed to push the hands of the Clock back.

We have no time to lose.

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