It is three minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face meant to represent how close humanity is to global catastrophe. It was moved up in January of this year due to “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals.” The Clock had not been moved this close to midnight, or doomsday, since 1984.
A group of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project created the Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives,” co-founder Eugene Rabinowitch stated.
Researchers meet twice a year to discuss whether or not the clock should be moved. Since the end of the Cold War, the Clock has been moved closer to doomsday virtually every meeting thanks to threats to humanity’s survival.
Recently, environmental problems such as global warming have been revealed to the world and addressed by the Bulletin. Scientists argue that the world may be a full five to fifteen degrees warmer by the end of the century if greenhouse gases are not decreased in the near future.
If this occurs, the Earth’s surface would be radically different than it is now. Yet even today global warming affects lives through flooding, stronger storms, drought and other changes.
“Greenhouse gas emission rates are now 50 percent higher than they were in 1990,” says Sivan Kartha, a member of the Bulletin. The Bulletin and other scientists argue that, although it is not too late, environmental problems are quickly approaching a point of no return.
Another threat to humanity is the number of nuclear warheads. While these have been greatly decreased since the Cold War era, more states now possess nuclear arsenals.
Many allies hold nuclear weaponry, and countries not belonging to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty continue to amass nuclear warheads. India has increased its nuclear power since the 1960s and has around 110 nuclear warheads. Pakistan has nearly the same amount and may have enough fissile material for 200 warheads by 2020. North Korea has been only partially successful in testing any warheads, but still pursues a nuclear arsenal.
There is also the threat of non-state actors, mostly terrorists, procuring a nuclear weapon. The notion that a state would willingly give terrorists a nuclear weapon to use against rival states is disputed. Deterrence, which does not apply to terrorists, does apply to their sponsor states and experts say attributing the bomb to its mother state is likely. Still, many argue that terrorists could receive nuclear warheads through theft or corruption in poorly defended states.
The Clock first appeared on the cover of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, when the nuclear age was beginning. It was featured on every cover until the Bulletin went completely digital and the Clock was moved to the site, where it can be found now. The Clock’s hand has been moved, not counting its original time, twenty one times. Despite major tension between the United States and the USSR, nuclear arsenal treaties and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union temporarily loosened the fear of nuclear armageddon. Treaties like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty helped the Clock reach its highest point ever, and a redesign was needed to allow it to reach seventeen minutes till midnight in 1991.