Is the Doomsday Clock Still Relevant?

11 Feb, 2020    ·   5649

Tanvi Kulkarni argues that the Clock has important symbolic value despite its shortcomings, particularly for the world's political elite

On 23 January 2020, the Doomsday Clock struck 11:58:20 PM – that is, 100 seconds away from midnight. The clock’s time is meant to symbolically indicate how close humanity is to a global catastrophe. And, the current time suggests that we are very close to one.

According to the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which has maintained the Doomsday Clock for over 70 years, and since the onset of the nuclear weapons age, the twin threats that confront humanity, and Earth, are nuclear war and climate change. These threats are further exacerbated by technologies that aid cyber/information warfare, thereby seriously undermining measures to fight the threats.

This time the Clock has moved the closest it has ever been to midnight in its ticking history. What does this mean? Is the Clock simply alarmist or are there important lessons to be learnt from the timekeeper? This article briefly looks at the history of the Doomsday Clock and the underlying message it conveys.

What is the Doomsday Clock?

Given the extraordinary destructive power of the nuclear weapon, the fear of the use of this weapon has often evoked notions like the nuclear holocaust or biblical references to the end of the world – the apocalypse. The Doomsday Clock is similarly a metaphor that warns against the hypothetical scenario of the world's extraordinary destruction catalysed by a man-made catastrophe. The ultimate 'doom' is represented by the temporal notion of 'midnight' or 12 am, which suggests the end of time for humanity.

The Doomsday Clock was devised by a group of scientists and experts who had formerly worked on the Manhattan Project and later founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago in 1945. In 1947 the Bulletin first set the clock at seven minutes to midnight (nuclear catastrophe). Since then, the Clock has become a notable symbol of the nuclear age, especially among the Bulletin’s readers, and is occasionally referred to by experts and leaders to caution and counsel against adverse developments.

How is the time determined?

The decision to set the clock at a particular time is taken by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board through a bi-annual review of risks to humankind, and in consultation with its board of sponsors, composed of distinguished scientists and Nobel Laureates. The clock is set every January and a statement is released if the hands are moved either closer to or farther from midnight. Since 1947, the hands of the clock have moved back and forth twenty-four times. In 2007, 60 years after the Clock first ticked, the board concluded that climate change was as dire a threat to the planet and to humankind as the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

There is no obvious methodology in determining the time. When the clock changes time, the Bulletin publishes an accompanying statement to explain the major events that caused the change. However, no weights are assigned to the developments that are assessed to be threat-enhancers or threat-diffusers. It is therefore difficult to ascertain which incidents or events influence the Bulletin’s decision on setting the time of the Clock.

At different stages of the Cold War, the Clock raised alarms to coincide with the intensification of the arms race between the US and the USSR, but it remained unaltered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bulletin explained that little was known about the crisis in 1962 to raise an alarm. On the other hand, treaties and agreements between the US and the USSR tended to push the time backward. The end of the Cold War set the clock at 17 minutes to midnight – the farthest it has been so far. More recently, the situations in South, West and East Asia have closely affected the Bulletin’s assessment of nuclear danger.

Lessons from the Doomsday Clock

The latest warning from the Bulletin that set the doomsday clock at 100 seconds to midnight has elicited rather muted reactions. One reason could be the receding effects of the continuous alarm raised by the Bulletin on the threats of nuclear war and climate change. Over the last few years, the Bulletin has 'reacted' mostly to rhetoric from world leaders like Trump, Putin, or Kim Jong-un. Another reason could be that events like the breakdown of arms control treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) or the unproductive UN Climate Action Summit of September 2019 have been damaging but not entirely unforeseen. Yet another reason could be the refusal of the current global political leadership to exigently address issues of low politics like climate change.

In spite of its shortcomings, the Doomsday Clock has important lessons. The metaphor of the Clock and its symbolic representation is meant to create an impactful visual of humankind’s proximity to a global catastrophe and induce urgency in addressing the threats most likely to lead to this catastrophe. The determination of these threats appear to be guided by a belief that they come not just from individual actions and technological innovations, but from conscious state policies. In 2015, the Bulletin advanced the clock to three minutes to midnight, particularly on account of the "failure of political leadership" to address climate change.

The creators of the Clock have thus placed the responsibility for preventing this catastrophe squarely on the world's political leaders, and particularly those from the major powers. The provision of moving the Doomsday Clock backward suggests that although technological developments are irreversible, political decisions and actions can help mitigate the disruptive effects of technologies.

Tanvi Kulkarni is Assistant Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies at Pune University, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.