I awaited this year’s Doomsday Clock announcement with real interest and not a little anxiety. Where the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists places the hands is a powerful indicator of the state of the world. Their decision last year to set the hands at 100 seconds to midnight – the closest ever – was a real reflection of the dangers we face, many of them long-running but exacerbated by the Trump years. So I wondered if they would pull the hands back a little, with Biden in the White House.
But no. The hands remain firmly fixed at 100 seconds to midnight. This year the scientists opened their statement talking about Covid-19. They say that while deadly, the virus is not an existential threat. Its consequences will be grave but will not obliterate civilization. But what the pandemic has revealed is just how unprepared and unwilling countries are to handle global emergencies properly; that governments have abdicated responsibility or ignored scientific advice. This is a real wake-up call; governments are also unprepared to handle today’s existential threats: nuclear weapons and climate change, or emerging future threats, like more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare.
On nuclear weapons, they point to accelerating nuclear programmes in multiple countries and raise concerns about delivery systems that can flexibly use conventional or nuclear warheads, which ‘may raise the probability of miscalculation in times of tension’. They highlighted the concern recently over national leaders who have sole control over nuclear use – notably Trump in his last days. In fact the scientists assert that the potential for the world to stumble into a nuclear war increased in 2020, even as we have seen the rapidly worsening consequences of the climate crisis. They also referred again to the ‘threat multiplier’ which has intensified the existential threats in recent years: ‘the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend.’
Or as they put it more bluntly: ‘In 2020, online lying literally killed.’
But in spite of these negative events they decided not to move the clock closer to midnight, because ‘amid the gloom’ they do see some positive developments. Chiefly, ‘the election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems.’ Absolutely – and they go on to cite Biden’s rejoining of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the extension of the New START arms control agreement with Russia.
So there are negatives and positives, some glimmers of hope. But we still remain the closest ever to midnight: there is work for us all to do to move that hand back to a place of safety.