In response to global hazards ranging from development of nuclear weapons programs to climate change and cyber-attacks, the University of Chicago’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the minute hand of its “Doomsday Clock” to three minutes to midnight, signaling a global calamity.
The Bulletin, a publication that covers issues surrounding nuclear weapons, was founded in 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Doomsday Clock was originally intended to signify the imminent threat of global nuclear war and has continued to measure the impact of rapidly developing technology on the environment.
The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board meets twice a year to discuss such global trends. The board, comprised of prominent scientists from multiple nations, then decides whether to alert the public to major changes in the state of the world by moving the hands of the clock closer or further away from midnight. This distance from midnight indicates how close the scientists believe the world is to global catastrophe.
This time, the board moved the hands in reaction to what they have deemed insufficient efforts to curb greenhouse gas emission, slowed attempts to limit nuclear weapons among world powers, lack of cyber-security among major companies and governments, and ineffective management of nuclear power and waste systems. The clock was last set to 11:57 p.m. in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. Though the times have changed, technological advances remain at the root of the problem.
“We’re no longer on hair trigger alert to shoot back to the Russians,” said Robert Rosner, a University of Chicago professor of astronomy and astrophysics and member of the board. “But we know that the things we were doing in the Cold War have led us to our climate problems today. Meanwhile the nuclear issues...have morphed into the spread of nuclear technology unchecked.”
Rosner, noting the board’s concern that the world’s politicians are not focused on these pressing problems, observed that in the United States, “we have a pretty good history of reacting quickly when the public at large realizes we have a problem, but not much happens until something dire occurs.”
Kennette Benedict, executive director of The Bulletin, remains hopeful about the effects that the moving of the hands can have in alerting the world to these issues. “What we do with the clock hand is to push people along to tell leaders we’ve had enough. And I think people are starting to wake up,” she said.