The new year has already seen shockwaves sent through the political world, with Joe Biden warning this week that Vladimir Putin will “move in” on Ukraine. He has warned his Eastern European counterpart would face a “stiff price” for invading its neighbour, with other leading figures joining to condemn the ongoing pressure. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists decided how close these developments, combined with the weight of the Covid pandemic, brought the world to destruction on January 20.
What happens when the Doomsday Clock hits midnight?
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is a collective of eminent academics responsible for curating the Doomsday Clock.
Established in 1945 by former Manhattan Project leads, the nonprofit collective exists to educate the public on the dangers of atomic weapons and “reduce man-made threats to our existence”.
They curate the famed Doomsday Clock – an instrument used to review humanity’s descent to destruction.
Bulletin scientists translate global peril into “minutes to midnight”, with the danger increasing as the clock’s hand moves forwards.
They set the device at seven minutes to midnight (or 11.53pm) in 1947 and move the hand when necessary.
The clock will move towards midnight as the probability of “technologically or environmentally-induced catastrophe” increases.
If the Doomsday Clock’s hand ever hit midnight, it means the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists believes a “global catastrophe” has erupted.
The hand may move back again if the Bulletin deems international tensions have eased enough in the year since their last release.
For example, in 1949, they moved the hand four minutes closer to midnight (11.57pm) as the Soviet Union successfully tested the RDS-1 nuclear bomb.
That bomb kickstarted the arms race and saw the Bulletin move the clock one-minute closer in 1953 (to 11.58pm) as the US responded with the first thermonuclear device.
But in 1960, increased cooperation and understanding of the dangers atomic weapons posed shown in events such as the 1958 Lebanon crisis convinced scientists to move it back five minutes to 11.53pm.
They set the hand its farthest back as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 to 11.43pm.
Since 2012, Bulletin scientists have only seen reason to move the clock forwards.
At present, the hand is the closest it has ever come to midnight, at 11.58.20pm.
The clock last moved forward in 2020, when 100 seconds to midnight represented “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced”.
Bulletin scientists reaffirmed the distance to midnight in 2022 with a new statement on world affairs.
On January 20, 2022, they said the new administration’s “more moderate and predictable approach to leadership” marked a “welcome change from the previous four years”.
But they conceded: “Still, the change in US leadership alone was not enough to reverse negative international security trends that had been long in developing and continued across the threat horizon in 2021.”
And they closed their statement evaluating the grave threat faced by humanity so close to midnight.
They said: “Without swift and focused action, truly catastrophic events—events that could end civilization as we know it—are more likely.
“When the Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight, we are all threatened. The moment is both perilous and unsustainable, and the time to act is now.”