Nuclear and climate threats push Doomsday Clock closer to midnight

Experts say world is closer to catastrophe than at any time since the clock was created 70 years ago

The Doomsday Clock reads 100 seconds to midnight, a decision made by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, during an announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on January 23, 2020.  President and CEO of the non-profit group Rachel Bronson said "It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock." The clock was created in 1947.  / AFP / EVA HAMBACH
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The Doomsday Clock has ticked down to 100 seconds to midnight, symbolising the greatest level of peril to humanity since its creation in 1947 as the threat posed by climate change and a growing nuclear race loomed large.

The danger level has been compounded by information warfare and disruptive technologies ranging from deepfake video and audio to the militarisation of space and the development of hypersonic weapons.

"We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds - not hours, or even minutes," said Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in announcing the change on Thursday.

The decision on the clock is taken by panels of experts, including 13 Nobel laureates.

It was originally set at seven minutes to midnight, and the previous worst – two minutes to midnight – held from 2018 to 2019 as well as 1953. The furthest it has ever been is 17 minutes, following the end of the Cold War in 1991.

On the nuclear front, the arms control boundaries that helped prevent catastrophe over the past half century are being dismantled and may be gone by next year, said Sharon Squassoni, an expert on nuclear energy and weapons.

This includes the demise in 2019 of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, with the US and Russia entering a new competition to deploy once banned weapons. The US has suggested it will not extend New START, an arms reduction treaty signed in 2010.

"This year could see not just the complete collapse of the Iran nuclear deal," said Ms Squassoni, eferring to Tehran boosting its enrichment efforts.

And despite initial hopes US President Donald Trump's unorthodox approach to North Korea might produce results, no real progress ensued, she said. Instead, Pyongyang instead is vowing to press ahead with a new strategic weapon.

On climate, two major UN summits fell dismally short of the action required to limit long-term warming to the goals laid out by the 2016 Paris Agreement that scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophe.

The effects were already apparent in the record-breaking heat waves and floods India faced in 2019, and the wildfires that raged from the Arctic to Australia.

"If humankind pushes the climate into the opposite of an ice age, we have no reason to be confident that such a world will remain hospitable to human civilisation," said Sivan Kartha, a scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

Yet the experts took heart in mounting climate activism spearheaded by a youth movement that is spurring some governments to action.

Misinformation campaigns and fake news catalysed by deepfake videos are potent threats to social cohesion, while the rise of weapons with artificial intelligence, such as drones that attack without human supervision, create new uncertainty.

Russia meanwhile has announced a new hypersonic glide missile and the US is testing its own weapons that severely limit response times of targeted nations.

Space, long an arena for international co-operation, is also becoming increasingly militarised with several countries testing projectile and laser anti-satellite weapons and the US creating a new military branch, the Space Force.

"We ask world leaders to join us in 2020 as we work to pull humanity back from the brink," said Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders leadership group and former president of Ireland.

"Now is the time to come together – to unite and to act."