What is the Doomsday Clock?



Paul Michael is an intern with Global Progressive Hub and a Master’s candidate at Elliott​ ​School​ ​of​ ​International​ ​Affairs​ ​at​ ​the​ ​George​ ​Washington​ ​University.

Looking Over the Edge of Nuclear Apocalypse: A Short Timeline of the Doomsday Clock

On Thursday, January 25, 2018, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their Doomsday Clock to just two minutes to nuclear “midnight.” In other words: Humanity is closer to eradicating itself through nuclear war than at any time since the nuclear arms race began.

In 1953, the clock reached two minutes to midnight when the United States first developed a hydrogen bomb and the world was poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Since then, global efforts for diplomacy and peace have forced the hands of the Doomsday Clock back away from midnight every time catastrophe looms. But now, Donald Trump and the global catastrophes he triggers have put us back mere inches from nuclear apocalypse. We must learn from history so that we can fix this, together. We have no time to lose.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the beginnings of the nuclear age. Sensing the global consequences of their creation, former Manhattan Project physicists founded The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1945 to educate and guide the public conversation. Ultimately, the Bulletin’s founders hoped to see to the abolition of the bomb.

The Doomsday Clock debuted in 1947 on the cover of the Bulletin as a visual representation of humanity’s proximity to global catastrophe — midnight. Every movement of the minute hand is intended to inform the public on the progress or failures made by the international community to address the world’s most pressing global challenges. The clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight, highlighting the urgent danger posed by nuclear weapons to the public.

Although the Doomsday Clock was initially intended to address the threat of nuclear weapons to life on earth, over time the threats evaluated by the Bulletin have expanded to include climate change and technology.

Doomsday Clock Trends:

The Doomsday Clock Timeline

Racing to Midnight:

(1947 – 1953)

Form the introduction of the Doomsday Clock to the successful detonation of a Soviet thermonuclear device, this era put humanity at 2 minutes to midnight, as close as it has come in the Clock’s history to global catastrophe—that is, until 2018. During this short, six year period, the Soviet Union became a nuclear weapon state, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. developed and successfully tested their own hydrogen bombs (1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), and the threat of global thermonuclear war was born.

A Decade of Progress:

(1953 – 1963)

Over the next decade, immense diplomatic progress led the Bulletin to set the minute hand of the clock at 12 minutes to midnight. The Pugwash Conferences established in 1957 allowed American and Soviet scientists to meet and discuss the dangers of nuclear weapons, creating some optimism within the scientific community. The era ended on a high note with the United States and Soviet Union signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty, barring atmospheric nuclear testing.

New Challenges, New Commitments:

(1963 – 1972)

Conflicts across the globe in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia coupled with France and China becoming nuclear weapons states prompted the Bulletin to warn that human survival had been brought “farther down the road to disaster.” New international agreements, however, prompted some optimism. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1969, created a framework to limit the number of nuclear weapon states and allowed for the transfer and development of peaceful nuclear technology. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty imposed limits on the number of ballistic launchers and prevented the development of anti-ballistic missile systems, respectively. With a brief movement in 1968, the era began and ended at 12 minutes to midnight.

Looking Out Over The Precipice:

(1972 – 1984)

Optimism following the signing of SALT and the ABM Treaty quickly eroded as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. doubled down on maintaining their nuclear arsenals, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Nearly all communication between the nuclear superpowers came to a freeze. Additionally, India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons led the Bulletin to announce that humanity was once again looking out over the precipice of nuclear annihilation. Only 3 minutes to midnight remained.

A New Era:

(1984 – 1991)

The fall of the Soviet Union seemed to foretell an end to the global ideological struggle that had held the world’s people captive with the threat of global thermonuclear war. New treaties aimed at limiting the nuclear threat also stirred some optimism in the Bulletin. The Inter-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned a whole class of nuclear weaponry, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty put limitations on the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed. There was hope that the world was on a path towards ending the threat of nuclear annihilation. With great optimism, the Bulletin moved the minute hand past its original 15 minute upper-bound to 17 minutes to midnight.

The Global Slump:

(1991 – 2016)

Unfortunately, post-Cold War optimism gradually began to fade as nuclear weapons states remained reluctant to take further steps towards disposing of their nuclear arsenals. At the turn of the century, the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty. The threat of terrorist groups acquiring unsecured nuclear weapons, rising nuclear tensions in South Asia between India and Pakistan, and North Korea’s successful nuclear test were all sobering reminders that the nuclear threat was still very real.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and Copenhagen Accord offered some hope in 2010 of “a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilization — the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change,” but the remainder of the decade found a world on fire. Nuclear weapons states began to modernize their nuclear capabilities and nuclear energy systems became increasingly insecure. In this period, the Bulletin also identified climate change as a monumental global threat, and cited the continued failure of global leadership to adequately address climate change as another factor driving civilization toward midnight. The abundance of threats following the end of the Cold War moved the minute hand to 3 minutes to midnight.

The Trump Era:

“Even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

(2017 – )

Donald Trump’s election came at an inflection point when the threats of nuclear weapons, climate inaction, and emerging technologies were converging. As a candidate, Trump’s disturbing statements on the usage and proliferation of nuclear weapons, his skepticism regarding climate change, and his distrust of expert opinions were alarming. Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board had rarely moved its estimation on the statements of one man, Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States moved the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand to 2.5 minutes to midnight — the closest to midnight ever since the advent of the hydrogen bomb.

Of course, that was until this week. On Thursday, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the clock to 2 minutes to midnight — as close as the clock has ever been in its history. The Bulletin’s board cited global challenges such as tensions between India and Pakistan in South Asia, North Korea’s advancement in nuclear weapons capabilities, a global failure to deal with the dangers of emerging technologies, and the increasing, stubborn threat of climate change.

In the United States, Trump’s presidency has been dangerous. A gutted State Department has created a diplomatic corps incapable of adequately addressing global challenges. Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement and his administration’s reckless backtracking on of environmental progress threatens multilateral efforts to curb one of the most pressing global challenges, climate change. The President continues to attack and undermine the Iran Deal with no viable alternative. The leaked 2018 Nuclear Posture Review indicates the United States plans to make the path to nuclear war quicker and easier by updating and diversifying the types of weapons in its nuclear arsenal and lowering the threshold of nuclear first use. Furthermore, no progress has been made towards US-Russia arms negotiations; in fact, the United States and Russia seem to be edging closer to a new nuclear arms race.

The scope of global threats evaluated by the Bulletin has expanded, but their words facing the specter of global thermonuclear war in 1953 ring true today: “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”