The Doomsday Clock – a symbolic countdown to the end of the world – is now just 100 seconds away from midnight, which signifies the apocalypse. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on Thursday pushed the minute hand ahead by 20 seconds because of the growing threat of nuclear proliferation, climate change and cyber-based disinformation.

The Doomsday Clock is now the closest it has ever been to the apocalypse since its creation in 1947, at the outset of the cold war. At the end of the cold war, the clock was 17 minutes away from apocalypse – the farthest it has ever been. In 2018 and 2019, it was wound to two minutes from midnight.

The Science and Security Board of the journal The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in consultation with its board of sponsors that includes 13 Nobel laureates, decides annually whether to move the hands of their symbolic “Doomsday Clock” or leave them as is.

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” a statement issued by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said. “The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

The president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Rachel Bronson said: “We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”

Executive chair of the bulletin, former California Governor Jerry Brown, said “dangerous rivalry and hostility” among the superpowers has increased the likelihood of nuclear blunder. “Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now,” he said.

“In the nuclear realm, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war,” the statement by the bulletin said. “Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent.”

While the scientists agreed that public awareness of the climate crisis grew during 2019, governmental action still falls short. “At UN climate meetings last year, national delegates made fine speeches but put forward few concrete plans to further limit the carbon dioxide emissions that are disrupting Earth’s climate,” the statement said. It observed that this “limited political response” came during a year when the effects of manmade climate change were “manifested by one of the warmest years on record, extensive wildfires, and quicker-than-expected melting of glacial ice”.

The nuclear and climate threats have been compounded by the continued corruption of the “information ecosphere” on which democracy and public decision making depend, the statement added. “In the last year, many governments used cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns to sow distrust in institutions and among nations, undermining domestic and international efforts to foster peace and protect the planet,” it said.

What is the clock?

The Doomsday Clock was introduced in 1947, as a serious warning that the world may be building up to a global nuclear war, by a group of concerned scientists who ironically participated in the making of the world’s first-ever nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project. Over the past seven decades, while the clock continues to be a universally recognised indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear Armageddon, other human-induced catastrophes such as climate change during the past decade, have also been included as factors pushing us towards the end of civilisation.