2018 Doomsday Clock: It Is Now Two Minutes to Midnight
Statement from the President and CEO
25 Jan 2018 – The year just past proved perilous and chaotic, a year in which many of the risks foreshadowed in our last Clock statement came into full relief. In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.
Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists focuses on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging technologies, the nuclear landscape takes center stage in this year’s Clock statement. Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing.
As you will see in the discussion that follows, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board has once again assessed progress—actually, lack thereof—in managing the technologies that can bring humanity both relief and harm. It is my hope that the statement focuses world attention on today’s dangerous trajectory and urges leaders and citizens alike to redouble their efforts in committing to a path that advances the health and safety of the planet. The Board has provided recommendations for how we might go about achieving this end, and it is urgent that we take heed.
I commend the members of the Science and Security Board for the work they undertake every day to put us on a safer footing. As always, John Mecklin’s talented pen has helped pull together wide-ranging contributions and allowed a large group of engaged experts to speak with one voice. The Bulletin couldn’t serve its proper role without financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the MacArthur Foundation, and the many other foundations, corporations, and individuals who contribute regularly to the Bulletin’s mission. We are deeply grateful for this ongoing support.
It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.
Rachel Bronson, PhD
President & CEO Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
— BulletinOfTheAtomic (@BulletinAtomic) January 25, 2018
Note from The Bulletin Editor, John Mecklin
Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains. A printable PDF of this statement, complete with the President and CEO’s statement and Science and Security Board biographies, is available here.
To Leaders and Citizens of the World
In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.
The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.
But the dangers brewing on the Korean Peninsula were not the only nuclear risks evident in 2017: The United States and Russia remained at odds, continuing military exercises along the borders of NATO, undermining the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), upgrading their nuclear arsenals, and eschewing arms control negotiations.
In the Asia-Pacific region, tensions over the South China Sea have increased, with relations between the United States and China insufficient to re-establish a stable security situation.
In South Asia, Pakistan and India have continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons.
And in the Middle East, uncertainty about continued US support for the landmark Iranian nuclear deal adds to a bleak overall picture.
To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger—and its immediacy.
On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, 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 ever-greater warming is to be avoided. The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable, and so far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge.
Beyond the nuclear and climate domains, technological change is disrupting democracies around the world as states seek and exploit opportunities to use information technologies as weapons, among them internet-based deception campaigns aimed at undermining elections and popular confidence in institutions essential to free thought and global security.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board believes the perilous world security situation just described would, in itself, justify moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.
But there has also been a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions. In 2017, the United States backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges. Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions—or understand when US pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surreal sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening.
Because of the extraordinary danger of the current moment, the Science and Security Board today moves the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes to midnight—the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.
The Science and Security Board hopes this resetting of the Clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant—as 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: #rewindtheDoomsdayClock.
The Untenable Nuclear Threat
The risk that nuclear weapons may be used—intentionally or because of miscalculation—grew last year around the globe.
North Korea has long defied UN Security Council resolutions to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but the acceleration of its tests in 2017 reflects new resolve to acquire sophisticated nuclear weapons. North Korea has or soon will have capabilities to match its verbal threats—specifically, a thermonuclear warhead and a ballistic missile that can carry it to the US mainland. In September, North Korea tested what experts assess to be a true two-stage thermonuclear device, and in November, it tested the Hwasong-15 missile, which experts believe has a range of over 8,000 kilometers. The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, responded with more frequent and larger military exercises, while China and Russia proposed a freeze by North Korea of nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a freeze in US exercises.
The failure to secure a temporary freeze in 2017 was unsurprising to observers of the downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The failure to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program will reverberate not just in the Asia-Pacific, as neighboring countries review their security options, but more widely, as all countries consider the costs and benefits of the international framework of nonproliferation treaties and agreements.
Nuclear risks have been compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation. Coordination on nuclear risk reduction is all but dead, and no solution to disputes over the INF Treaty—a landmark agreement to rid Europe of medium-range nuclear missiles—is readily apparent. Both sides allege violations, but Russia’s deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile, if not addressed, could trigger a collapse of the treaty. Such a collapse would make what should have been a relatively easy five-year extension of the New START arms control pact much harder to achieve and could terminate an arms control process that dates back to the early 1970s.
For the first time in many years, in fact, no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations are under way. New strategic stability talks begun in April are potentially useful, but so far they lack the energy and political commitment required for them to bear fruit. More important, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and semi-covert support of separatists in eastern Ukraine have sparked concerns that Russia will support similar “hybrid” conflicts in new NATO members that it borders—actions that could provoke a crisis at almost any time. Additional clash points could emerge if Russia attempts to exploit friction between the United States and its NATO partners, whether arising from disputes on burden-sharing, European Union membership, and trade—or relating to policies on Israel, Iran, and terrorism in the Middle East.
In the past year, US allies have needed reassurance about American intentions more than ever. Instead, they have been forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from a US administration weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals, suffering from turnover in senior leadership, led by an undisciplined and disruptive president, and unable to develop, coordinate, and clearly communicate a coherent nuclear policy. This inconsistency constitutes a major challenge for deterrence, alliance management, and global stability. It has made the existing nuclear risks greater than necessary and added to their complexity.
Especially in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, allies are perplexed. While President Trump has steadfastly opposed the agreement that his predecessor and US allies negotiated to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he has never successfully articulated practical alternatives. His instruction to Congress in 2017 to legislate a different approach resulted in a stalemate. The future of the Iran deal, at this writing, remains uncertain.
In the United States, Russia, and elsewhere around the world, plans for nuclear force modernization and development continue apace. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review appears likely to increase the types and roles of nuclear weapons in US defense plans and lower the threshold to nuclear use. In South Asia, emphasis on nuclear and missile capabilities grows. Conventional force imbalances and destabilizing plans for nuclear weapons use early in any conflict continue to plague the subcontinent.
Reflecting long decades of frustration with slow progress toward nuclear disarmament, states signed a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the ban treaty, at the United Nations this past September. The treaty—championed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work—is a symbolic victory for those seeking a world without nuclear weapons and a strong expression of the frustration with global disarmament efforts to date. Predictably, countries with nuclear weapons boycotted the negotiations, and none has signed the ban treaty. Their increased reliance on nuclear weapons, threats, and doctrines that could make the use of those weapons more likely stands in stark contrast to the expectations of the rest of the world.
Last year, the US government pursued unwise and ineffectual policies on climate change, following through on a promise to derail past US climate policies. The Trump administration, which includes avowed climate denialists in top positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and other key agencies, has announced its plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In its rush to dismantle rational climate and energy policy, the administration has ignored scientific fact and well-founded economic analyses.
These US government climate decisions transpired against a backdrop of worsening climate change and high-impact weather-related disasters. This year past, the Caribbean region and other parts of North America suffered a season of historic damage from exceedingly powerful hurricanes. Extreme heat waves occurred in Australia, South America, Asia, Europe, and California, with mounting evidence that heat-related illness and death are correspondingly increasing. The Arctic ice cap achieved its smallest-ever winter maximum in 2017, the third year in a row that this record has been broken. The United States has witnessed devastating wildfires, likely exacerbated by extreme drought and subsequent heavy rains that spurred underbrush growth. When the data are assessed, 2017 is almost certain to continue the trend of exceptional global warmth: All the warmest years in the instrumental record, which extends back to the 1800s, have—excepting one year in the late 1990s—occurred in the 21st century.
Despite the sophisticated disinformation campaign run by climate denialists, the unfolding consequences of an altered climate are a harrowing testament to an undeniable reality: The science linking climate change to human activity—mainly the burning of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases—is sound. The world continues to warm as costly impacts mount, and there is evidence that overall rates of sea level rise are accelerating—regardless of protestations to the contrary.
Especially against these trends, it is heartening that the US government’s defection from the Paris Agreement did not prompt its unravelling or diminish its support within the United States at large. The “We Are Still In” movement signals a strong commitment within the United States—by some 1,700 businesses, 250 cities, 200 communities of faith, and nine states, representing more than 40 percent of the US population—to its international climate commitments and to the validity of scientific facts.
This reaffirmation is reassuring, and other countries have maintained their steadfast support for climate action, reconfirmed their commitments to global climate cooperation, and clearly acknowledged that more needs to be done. French President Emmanuel Macron’s sober message to global leaders assembled at December’s global climate summit in Paris was a reality check after the heady climate negotiations his country hosted two years earlier: “We’re losing the battle. We’re not moving quickly enough. We all need to act.” And indeed, after plateauing for a few years, greenhouse gas emissions resumed their stubborn rise in 2017.
As we have noted before, the true measure of the Paris Agreement is whether nations actually fulfill their pledges to cut emissions, strengthen those pledges, and see to it that global greenhouse gas emissions start declining in short order and head toward zero. As we drift yet farther from this goal, the urgency of shifting course becomes greater, and the existential threat posed by climate change looms larger.
Emerging Technologies and Global Risk
The Science and Security Board is deeply concerned about the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves—a loss that the abuse of information technology has fostered. Attempts to intervene in elections through sophisticated hacking operations and the spread of disinformation have threatened democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to reach reasonable decisions on public policy—including policy relating to nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global threats. Meanwhile, corporate leaders in the information domain, including established media outlets and internet companies such as Facebook and Google, have been slow to adopt protocols to prevent misuse of their services and protect citizens from manipulation. The international community should establish new measures that discourage and penalize all cross-border subversions of democracy.
Last year, the Science and Security Board warned that “[t]echnological innovation is occurring at a speed that challenges society’s ability to keep pace. While limited at the current time, potentially existential threats posed by a host of emerging technologies need to be monitored, and to the extent possible anticipated, as the 21st century unfolds.”
If anything, the velocity of technological change has only increased in the past year, and so our warning holds for 2018. But beyond monitoring advances in emerging technology, the board believes that world leaders also need to seek better collective methods of managing those advances, so the positive aspects of new technologies are encouraged and malign uses discovered and countered. The sophisticated hacking of the “Internet of Things,” including computer systems that control major financial and power infrastructure and have access to more than 20 billion personal devices; the development of autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision; and the possible misuse of advances in synthetic biology, including the revolutionary Crispr gene-editing tool, already pose potential global security risks. Those risks could expand without strong public institutions and new management regimes. The increasing pace of technological change requires faster development of those tools.
How to Turn Back the Clock
In 1953, former Manhattan Project scientist and Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch set the hands of the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, writing, “The achievement of a thermonuclear explosion by the Soviet Union, following on the heels of the development of ‘thermonuclear devices’ in America, means that the time, dreaded by scientists since 1945, when each major nation will hold the power of destroying, at will, the urban civilization of any other nation, is close at hand.”
The Science and Security Board now again moves the hands of the Clock to two minutes before midnight. But the current, extremely dangerous state of world affairs need not be permanent. The means for managing dangerous technology and reducing global-scale risk exist; indeed, many of them are well-known and within society’s reach, if leaders pay reasonable attention to preserving the long-term prospects of humanity, and if citizens demand that they do so.
This is a dangerous time, but the danger is of our own making. Humankind has invented the implements of apocalypse; so can it invent the methods of controlling and eventually eliminating them. This year, leaders and citizens of the world can move the Doomsday Clock and the world away from the metaphorical midnight of global catastrophe by taking these common-sense actions:
- US President Donald Trump should refrain from provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea, recognizing the impossibility of predicting North Korean reactions.
- The US and North Korean governments should open multiple channels of communication. At a minimum, military-to-military communications can help reduce the likelihood of inadvertent war on the Korean Peninsula. Keeping diplomatic channels open for talks without preconditions is another common-sense way to reduce tensions. As leading security expert Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University recently wrote: “Such talks should not be seen as a reward or concession to Pyongyang, nor construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. They could, however, deliver the message that while Washington fully intends to defend itself and its allies from any attack with a devastating retaliatory response, it does not otherwise intend to attack North Korea or pursue regime change.”
- The world community should pursue, as a short-term goal, the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests. North Korea is the only country to violate the norm against nuclear testing in 20 years. Over time, the United States should seek North Korea’s signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty—and then, along with China, at long last also ratify the treaty.
- The Trump administration should abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s nuclear program unless credible evidence emerges that Iran is not complying with the agreement or Iran agrees to an alternative approach that meets US national security needs.
- The United States and Russia should discuss and adopt measures to prevent peacetime military incidents along the borders of NATO. Provocative military exercises and maneuvers hold the potential for crisis escalation. Both militaries must exercise restraint and professionalism, adhering to all norms developed to avoid conflict and accidental encounters.
- US and Russian leaders should return to the negotiating table to resolve differences over the INF treaty; to seek further reductions in nuclear arms; to discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; to limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and to ensure that new tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons are not built and that existing tactical weapons are never used on the battlefield.
- US citizens should demand, in all legal ways, climate action from their government. Climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity. Citizens should insist that their governments acknowledge it and act accordingly.
- Governments around the world should redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they go well beyond the initial, inadequate pledges under the Paris Agreement. The temperature goal under that agreement—to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—is consistent with consensus views on climate science, is eminently achievable, and is economically viable, provided that poorer countries are given the support they need to make the post-carbon transition. But the time window for achieving this goal is rapidly closing.
- The international community should establish new protocols to discourage and penalize the misuse of information technology to undermine public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Strong and accountable institutions are necessary to prevent deception campaigns that are a real threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to enact policies to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global dangers.
- The countries of the world should collaborate on creating institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially malign or catastrophic misuses of new technologies, particularly as regards autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision and advances in synthetic biology that could, if misused, pose a global threat.
The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future is lamentable—but that failure can be reversed. It is two minutes to midnight, but the Doomsday Clock has ticked away from midnight in the past, and during the next year, the world can again move it further from apocalypse. The warning the Science and Security Board now sends is clear, the danger obvious and imminent. The opportunity to reduce the danger is equally clear.
The world has seen the threat posed by the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation. But there is a flip side to the abuse of social media. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world. They can #rewindtheDoomsdayClock.
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