Doomsday Clock remains at two minutes to midnight

UChicago-based group warns ‘the new abnormal’ heightens existential risk to humanity

Citing lack of progress on nuclear risks and climate change dangers as “the new abnormal,” the University of Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 24 kept the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight—as close to the symbolic point of annihilation since the height of the Cold War.

Founded by Manhattan Project physicists, many of whom helped achieve the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942 at the University of Chicago, the Bulletin was organized in 1945 to address the threat to humanity posed by the use of nuclear weapons. Today, it is world-renowned for shaping public debates on crucial global issues.

The 2019 Doomsday Clock statement notes that threats from both nuclear weapons and climate change “were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.” It warns against the situation becoming “the new abnormal.”

“There is nothing normal about the complex and frightening reality we are describing today,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin. “Though unchanged from 2018, this setting should be taken not as a sign of stability but as a stark warning to leaders and citizens around the world.”

Two members of the UChicago faculty were associated with the Jan. 24 Doomsday clock announcement in Washington, D.C.: Robert Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics and Physics, and Daniel Holz, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and physics. Both are members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, which is based at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

This year’s announcement follows two straight years in which the Doomsday Clock was moved closer to midnight.

In January 2017, the Doomsday Clock edged forward by 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes before midnight. For the first time, the Doomsday Clock was influenced by an incoming U.S. president, the Bulletin said, regarding Donald Trump’s statements on proliferation and the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons and opposition to U.S. commitments regarding climate change. In 2018, the Doomsday Clock moved forward again—to two minutes before midnight.

“The current situation—in which intersecting nuclear, climate and information warfare threats all go insufficiently recognized and addressed, when they are not simply ignored or denied—is unsustainable,” said Rosner, who chairs the Bulletin board that sets the clock. “The longer world leaders and citizens carelessly inhabit this new and abnormal reality, the more likely the world is to experience catastrophe of historic proportions.”

The group recommends a set of action steps, including U.S. and Russian leaders returning to the negotiating table to seek further reductions in nuclear arms and prevent peacetime military incidents along borders; international discussion about cyber-enabled ‘information warfare’ that undermines public trust in institutions, media and science; and citizens pressuring the U.S. government to act on the imminent threat of climate change.

“There is no reason the Doomsday Clock cannot move away from catastrophe,” the 2019 statement continued. “It has done so in the past, because wise leaders acted—under pressure from informed and engaged citizens around the world.”