Update, 1/26: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced Thursday that, thanks largely to the continued threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, the Doomsday Clock is now at two and a half minutes to midnight.
“We call on the United States and Russia to take steps in the coming year to reduce existential risk,” said Lawrence Krauss, chair of the BAS’s Board of Sponsors. “We also call upon all people to speak out and send a loud message to our leaders that we will not allow them to needlessly threaten your future, and the future of your children.”
Original story: Every year since 1947, a few dozen esteemed scientists have put their heads together and decided how close we are to the end of the world. Thursday morning, in the face of an unusually intense amount of global political upheaval, they’ll take another stab at it.
Invented by former members of the Manhattan Project, the so-called Doomsday Clock isn’t really a clock at all, but rather a handy way to visualize the aggregate effects of various threats to humanity: The closer the metaphorical minute hand is to midnight, the closer we are to total destruction.
The clock is overseen by the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, along with their Board of Sponsors, which is stacked with Nobel Laureates. Each year, they consider humanity’s greatest ailments and boil them down into a concrete conclusion: are we nearer to doom than we were last year?
Over its 70-year tenure, the clock has gone from a low of two minutes to midnight (in 1953, when thermonuclear tests were prevalent), to a high of 17 minutes to midnight (in 1991, after a global nuclear resolution). Since then, it has ticked steadily upward, gaining a minute or two each year.
In 2016, the board chose to keep it where it had been in 2015, at an ominous 23:57. According to the BAS’s executive director, Rachel Bronson, climate change, missile-making, and “other existential threats” played into their calculus in 2016, but were tempered by “some positive news,” such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement.
Obviously, a lot has happened since then. In a recent press release announcing the forthcoming update to the clock, the board cited “a rise in strident nationalism worldwide, President Donald Trump’s comments on nuclear arms and climate issues… a darkening global security landscape… [and] a growing disregard for scientific expertise.”
In just the two days since the BAS released this statement, the Trump administration has signaled its intention to proceed with building a border wall and to restart controversial oil pipelines. It has also made strides toward muzzling communication between scientific agencies and the public. China has moved ballistic missiles to the Russian border, and European Union officials are again considering building their own military force. As board member Jennifer Sims told Chicagoist, it has been “an unusual clock year.”
On Thursday, we’ll learn how this all shakes out into numbers. Are we still at 23:57? 23:58? Straight-up midnight? According to a poll on the BAS website, the public is not hopeful: at press time, 77 percent of respondents had indicated that the clock should “move to less than three minutes to midnight.”
Check out the livestream Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern—and as soon as we learn the doom diagnosis, we’ll update this post.