The Doomsday Clock is a real thing, and it’s close to midnight

Global apocalyptic disaster comes at 12 o’clock.

Neil Churchill February 10, 2016

“It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking in the dark...” The famous opening lyrics from Michael Jackson’s immortal Thriller, of course. 

But it’s not a bad description for the way the world currently is. At least that’s according to the Doomsday Clock. 

Yes, it’s a real thing, and it’s currently at three minutes to midnight, the ‘latest’ it’s been since the Cold War days of 1984. In case you were wondering, midnight signals global apocalyptic disaster; when humanity destroys itself. Nice. 

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who control the clock, set the time to its current position in 2015, noting that “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” 

Last week, members of the Bulletin decided that not enough had been done to warrant the time changing. In a statement, they said: “That probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act—immediately." Crikey. 

The clock moved to ‘three minutes to’ last year because of the gathering dangers of climate change and nuclear proliferation. Before then it had been at five minutes to midnight since 2012. 

"Three minutes (to midnight) is too close. Far too close,” the statement said. "We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016: That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. 

"When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: they threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries." 

It all sounds pretty damning, and the report in its entirety is not the lightweight reading you'd use to put a child happily to sleep. But 2015 was supposed to be the year of change. The Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord were both landmark moments. Surely they were enough to swing the minute hand anti-clockwise? Apparently not. 

“Promising though it may be, the Paris climate agreement came toward the end of Earth's warmest year on record, with the increase in global temperature over pre-industrial levels surpassing one degree Celsius,” the statement said. 

The Bulletin also accused the United Kingdom’s government of “steady backtracking on climate policies and the continued intransigence of the Republican Party in the United States, which stands alone in the world in failing to acknowledge even that human-caused climate change is a problem.” 

So much more needs to be done, fair enough. But what about Iran?

“Even as the Iran agreement was hammered out,” the Bulletin goes on, “tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. 

“Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with Turkey, a NATO member, shooting down a Russian warplane involved in Syria, the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia repositioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them.” Well when you put it like that… gulp. 

The statement goes on to lament Washington and Moscow’s programs of modernising their nuclear arsenals, suggesting they plan to keep and maintain their readiness of nuclear weapons, “despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament.” 

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, originally formed of scientists from the University of Chicago who had helped develop the first atomic weapons, created the Doomsday Clock in 1947, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The ‘earliest’ – or safest – the clock has ever been was 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, with the Cold War officially over and The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in place. 

Since then, the clock has ticked closer to midnight each time it’s changed, except from 2010 when it was pushed back by one minute. 

The most severe time, two minutes to midnight, was in 1953 when within a nine-month period both the US and Russia tested their first hydrogen bombs. At the time, the Bulletin announced: “The hands of the Clock of Doom have moved again. Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization." 

If the world’s leaders do not start to act soon, 2017 may see us tick back to 1953. 

To view the Doomsday Clock and its timeline, go to thebulletin.org/timeline.