Days after Donald Trump took the oath of office as the President of the United States, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, in part because of destabilising comments and threats from America’s new commander-in-chief. A year later, we are moving the clock forward again by 30 seconds, due to the failure of Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.
The Science and Security Board for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists assesses that the world is not only more dangerous now than it was a year ago; it is as threatening as it has been since the Second World War. In fact, the Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight today as it was in 1953, when Cold War fears perhaps reached their highest levels.
To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger — and its immediacy. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region and the United States. The failure in 2017 to secure a temporary freeze on North Korea’s nuclear development was unsurprising to observers of the downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But North Korea’s developing nuclear programme will reverberate not just in the Asia-Pacific, as neighbouring countries review their security options, but more widely, as all countries consider the costs and benefits of the international framework of non-proliferation treaties and agreements.
Global nuclear risks were compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation. The US and Russia remained at odds, continuing military exercises along the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, upgrading their nuclear arsenals and eschewing arms control negotiations.
Tensions over the South China Sea have increased. Pakistan and India have continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons. And in the Middle East, uncertainty over continued US support for the landmark Iranian nuclear deal adds to a bleak overall picture. A related danger is the rise of cyberthreats targeting national infrastructure, including power grids, water supplies and military systems.
On the climate-change front, the danger may seem less immediate than risk of nuclear annihilation, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now. Global carbon dioxide emissions have not yet shown the beginnings of the sustained decline towards zero that must occur if we are to avoid ever-greater warming. The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse-gas emissions to manage even the climate risk accepted in the Paris accord. So far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge.
The Trump administration’s decision essentially to turn a blind eye to climate change transpired against a backdrop of a worsening climate, including exceedingly powerful hurricanes in the Caribbean and other parts of North America and extreme heatwaves in Australia, South America, Asia, Europe and California. The Arctic ice cap achieved its smallest-ever winter maximum in 2017. And last week, data from 2017 demonstrated a continued trend of exceptional global warmth.
We believe that the perilous world security situation described here would, in itself, justify moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. But there also is a real threat posed by a fundamental breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions. In 2017, America backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort towards solving pressing global governance challenges. Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions or discern between sincere US pronouncements and mere rhetoric.
US allies have needed reassurance about American intentions more than ever. Instead, they have been force to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from an administration that is weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals and suffering from turnover in senior leadership. Led by an undisciplined and disruptive president, the US administration has failed to develop, coordinate and clearly communicate a coherent nuclear policy. This inconsistency constitutes a major challenge for deterrence, alliance management and global stability.
We hope this resetting of the clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant: An urgent warning of global danger. The time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past. The time for the citizens of the world to demand such action is now. It is time to rewind the Doomsday Clock.
— Washington Post
Lawrence Krauss, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors, is director of the Origins Project and foundation professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department at Arizona State University. Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, is a distinguished service professor in the Departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago.