2021’s ‘Doomsday Clock’ stuck at 100 seconds until the end of the world

After a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued fears over nuclear risks and climate change, the symbolic Doomsday Clock remains stuck at the same time as last year.

“The hands of the Doomsday Clock remain at 100 seconds to midnight, as close to midnight as ever,” Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), said on Wednesday (27 January).

Since 1947, the nonprofit organisation annually adjusts its symbolic annual end-of-days prediction, which “conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making,” according to the group.

In 2020, the clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it ever got to that point. Marking “a historic wakeup call,” its hands have remained in the same place since.

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists annually adjusts its symbolic Doomsday Clock, which indicates how close humanity and the planet are to complete disaster. This year, we’re closer than ever, the scientists announced on Thursday (23 January).

“[This year] revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly,” the group said.

“It’s a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change,” Bronson said.

The clock was first created by US scientists working on the atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project during World War II to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war. It’s current board members include 13 Nobel laureates.

The world was furthest from self-destruction in 1991, shortly after the end of the Cold War, when the clock showed 17 minutes to twelve, according to the Doomsday Clock.

Last call for dying arms control

The announcement came only a day after the 2010 New START Treaty, a threatened milestone accord between Moscow and Washington which caps nuclear warhead numbers, was salvaged from expiring in February 2021.

In one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new US administration, Washington and Moscow have struck a deal to extend the accord.

The move preserves the last major pact of its kind between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers after the past few years has seen several important arms control treaties being ended or undermined.

However, the scientists stated that despite the extension, the nuclear modernisation plans of the major nuclear powers raised the risk of a nuclear conflict being sparked by miscalculation.

The scientists listed the development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missile defences and missiles that can use both conventional and nuclear warheads, as raising the risk of mistakes.

The Bulletin’s experts had also written an open letter to new US President Joe Biden, warning “that an absolutely catastrophic US-Russian nuclear blunder is possible”.

“Russia poses the most serious threat imaginable to the United States; it could launch – possibly by mistake or miscalculation – hundreds of nuclear missiles, with absolutely catastrophic consequences.

“We, of course, pose a similar threat to the Russians.”

“Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate while destabilising ‘advances’ in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defences continued,” the scientists wrote.

The scientists also recommended the US to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, which former US President Donald Trump had exited in 2018.

Biden has said he wants to undo the diplomatic harm caused by Trump’s unilateral reimposition of sanctions on Iran, which happened over the objections of European allies but has so far not signalled any policy details.

In his recent inaugural phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden promised to coordinate with Europeans on Middle East Peace issues and on how to save the deal with Tehran.

Looming climate threats

“The US, China and other big countries must get serious about cutting lethal carbon emissions – now,” Jerry Brown, BAS executive chair, said.

Climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, is also among the major threats cited by the Doomsday Clock authors.

“The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems,” the Bulletin said.

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