Doomsday Clock now at closest point to midnight in history

24 January 2023

(The Hill) – Russia’s war in Ukraine has significantly raised the risk of global self-annihilation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned Tuesday, moving forward the Doomsday Clock to its closest point to midnight ever.

The Doomsday Clock is meant to measure the gravest risks to human existence to pressure world leaders to recommit to addressing extinction-level challenges, such as the threat of nuclear weapon use, but has grown to include the dangers of climate change and biological risks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The clock has moved to 90 seconds before midnight, 10 seconds closer than when it was last set in January 2022, shortly before Russia launched its invasion against Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The consortium of scientists noted then “that without swift and focused action, truly catastrophic events are more likely,” Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, said Tuesday.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has earlier condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons “outrageous.”

“The possibilities that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high,” Bronson warned, citing United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’s earlier warning that the world has entered a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.

The announcement by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists occurred the same day that the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Conference of Nuclear Disarmament criticized Russia for delaying for a second time strategic nuclear talks between Washington and Moscow aimed at nuclear arms reduction.

Russia has earlier said it delayed meeting for the talks over U.S. support for Ukraine.

Asked by a Russian reporter Tuesday how nuclear talks between Washington and Moscow can resume as the U.S. and other Western nations debate sending tanks and long-range weapons to Ukraine, former world leaders and scientists spoke up in continuing to arm Ukraine. 

“I think they need more tanks,” Elbegdorj Tsakhia, former president and prime minister of Mongolia, said of Ukraine. “They have no time to wait. I think they need more support. More weapons, more tanks.”

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Steve Fetter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said that the U.S. and Russia should be able to pursue nuclear talks despite the war in Ukraine, “just as we did during the darkest days of the Cold War,” but also warned against Russia succeeding in Ukraine.

“If Russia prevails in Ukraine, other non-nuclear countries may conclude that they can’t be defended from attack against nuclear-armed adversaries and that could undermine the nonproliferation regime and fuel a new round of proliferation,” he said.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has also worsened other global challenges, such as climate change and biological risk. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released its findings for the first time in English, Russian and Ukrainian with the intention to have it read in the capitals most affected, the consortium of scientists said.

Suzet McKinney, principal and director of life sciences at Sterling Bay and a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, raised the warning around biological threats, both natural and manmade.

She warned that Russia, North Korea and Iran all continue to maintain biological weapons program and that the risk Russia will deploy biological weapons in Ukraine “continues to escalate as conditions there become more and more chaotic.”

Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, McKinney said the international community needs to improve its ability to prevent disease outbreaks and to detect them quickly when they occur, both from disease originating in animals and transmitted to humans and laboratory accidents. 

“Events like COVID-19 can no longer be considered rare, once in a century occurrences,” she said. 

On climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has contributed to two countervailing dynamics, said Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

The push to decouple from Russia’s oil and gas exports has spurred investment in renewables, Kartha said, but high natural gas prices have “driven a frenzied push to develop new natural gas supplies,” and a short-term reliance on coal in power plants, “leading this past year to be a record high for global coal consumption.”

Bronson, in closing remarks, said the clock moving closer to midnight is sending a message to the public to exert more pressure on leaders to address these fatal risks. 

“We’re in a situation now where leaders aren’t doing what they need to and we need the public, desperately, to make sure they focus on key issues,” she said.

“Those who are listening, say … ‘it doesn’t feel safer today,’ they’re not alone. We’re very concerned about this. No one can do this alone, but everyone can do something. And with that, we hope that the moving of the clock as we assess where the threats are, is a motivator that we all need to pay attention to these key issues.”

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