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27 January 2016

It’s three minutes to midnight – but what is the Doomsday Clock, and should we be worried?

The Doomsday Clock tracks the greatest threats to mankind, from nuclear war to climate change.

By Stephanie Boland

Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published an update on their “doomsday clock”, which remains at three minutes to midnight.

According to the scientists who publish it,

The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.

Using the number of “minutes to midnight” as a way of expressing the current perceived threat to humanity’s continued existence, the clock gives a striking visual indicator of how much danger mankind has placed itself in. Originally set according to the likelihood of nuclear destruction, the scientists behind the clock now also consider climate change. 

Its origins lie in the Manhattan Project; the programme which developed the world’s first nuclear weapons during the Second World War. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of scientists who had been involved in the project decided they could not ignore the impact of their work, or allow the public to be misled about the potential threat from nuclear weapons. To this end, they started to publish a newsletter, which then became the Bulletin.

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Since its founding in 1947, it has featured the clock on every cover. Originally designed by Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of one of the scientists involved, the design has changed over the years but retained its iconic “minutes to midnight”. In their “Three minutes and counting” announcement from last year, the Bulletin explained how this image combined the ideas of “apocalypse (midnight)” with “the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet”. The starting point of seven minutes was chosen, according to Langsdord, because it “looked good to my eye”.

The clock has appeared in pop culture as a symbol of impending nuclear war, from the game Rise of Nations in which each nuclear missile fired costs a “tick” on the clock to the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, where the clock is an ominous reminder of the threat from nuclear weapons.

Until his death in 1973, the Bulletin’s editor Eugene Rabinowitch set the time. “A scientist himself, fluent in Russian, and a leader in the international disarmament movement, he was in constant conversation with scientists and experts within and outside governments in many parts of the world.” After his death, the task was taken up by the journal’s “Science and Security Board”. Composed of international experts in nuclear weaponry and climate science, the group meets twice a year to discuss the global situation and, after consulting colleagues in a range of disciplines, alter the clock as necessary.

Since 2007, they have recognised the threat from climate change as part of their considerations. In fact, their latest predictions suggest that the threat from nuclear weapons and climate change are intertwined: after all, replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy demands building more reactors, and resource scarcity instigated by climate change can fuel conflict.

Explaining their decision to keep this year’s time at three minutes to midnight, the scientists behind the clock said that despite some bright spots – the Iran nuclear deal and Paris talks – they were “dismayed” that politicians “continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change”.

So should you be worried? I’m afraid the answer is most likely yes. It now looks like the optimism that allowed the clock to move back to six minutes in 2010 has evaporated as the promises of the UN Climate Change conference have failed to transform into concrete action. True, this isn’t as bad as moving the clock forward to two minutes to midnight would have been; but given that 2015 was a year of record temperatures, a lack of progress is enough to be potentially catastrophic.

Key movements of the clock

1947: The clock is created, with the time set at seven minutes to midnight.

1949: A nuclear weapons test in the Soviet Union helps provoke an arms race. The time moves to three minutes to midnight as the Bulletin tells Americans they “have reason to be deeply alarmed”.

1953: Two minutes to midnight – the closest to the hour it has been – as the United States and then Soviety Union test thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other

1963: The clock jumps back to twelve minutes to midnight after the Partial Test Ban Treaty

1981: Reagan becomes president and scraps nuclear arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union, helping shift the clock to four minutes to midnight

1991: The clock is moved to its furthest from midnight as the US and Soviet Union sign an arms reduction treaty. The Bulletin suggests that “the illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of nationals security has been stripped away”.

2007: The team behind the clock begins considering climate change for the first time. Combined with a nuclear test in North Korea, it is now five minutes to midnight.

2010: The minute hand moves back: it’s six minutes to midnight after the UN Climate Change conference.

2012: A lack of effort on climate change helps move the clock to 23:55. The Bulletin stresses that “unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernisation of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”, particularly noting the failure to take action against the global rise in temeprature.

2015: The failure to act on climate change and the modernisation of nuclear weapons leaves the world at three minutes to midnight.

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