Today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced the new timing of its Doomsday Clock, declaring humanity closer to global destruction than ever before — only 90 seconds from midnight.
Founded in 1947 in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings by the United States, the clock has served as a yearly metaphor for how close humankind is to a worldwide devastation of its own making. Originally created to raise awareness about the risks of nuclear weapons, the clock now represents humanity’s fragile insecurity with climate change and unrestrained scientific advancements in bioterrorism and artificial intelligence.
As the risks of man-made disaster increase, the clock moves closer to midnight. Conversely, when humans make progress in reducing risk, like through arms control agreements, the clock is moved backward. Since 2020, simultaneous issues around public health, the climate crisis, authoritarianism, disinformation, and continued nuclear modernization have kept the clock at 100 seconds to midnight. And 2022 has only seen a further deterioration of our collective security.
With these threats being so numerous and existential, they can be challenging to conceptualize on an individual and community level. What exactly does 90 seconds to midnight look like? How do these harms manifest around the world? And ultimately, what can we do to turn back the clock and safeguard our mutual future?
DOOMSDAY OF THE PAST AND PRESENT
While the Doomsday Clock forces us to reckon with our actions as a global community to prevent “doomsday,” the reality is that for billions of people around the world, doomsday is not a future threat but a current reality that threatens to devolve further.
Since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the world has witnessed yet another country and its citizens torn apart in a senseless war for unchecked power. Moreover, fear of Russia’s potential to unleash its nuclear arsenal on Ukraine, especially amongst Ukrainians and Europeans, has increased greatly due to Putin’s repeated not-so-thinly-veiled nuclear threats.
While the Doomsday Clock forces us to reckon with our actions as a global community to prevent “doomsday,” the reality is that for billions of people around the world, doomsday is not a future threat but a current reality.
Elsewhere, largely Black, Indigenous, and poor communities have survived doomsday for decades as the United States and other nuclear weapons states poison their land, water, and bodies with radiation exposure in their quest for global hegemony. For example, the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945, known as the Trinity Test, took place in New Mexico and immediately poisoned nearby communities. Residents surrounding the testing site and neighboring states, particularly the Navajo Nation, began to feel ill. They watched their crops and livestock die and witnessed infant mortality rates skyrocket. A year later, people in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and elsewhere in the Pacific were forced to relocate after the United States began nuclear weapons tests on their islands too, permanently destroying their ancestral homes. And now, the climate catastrophe — in which US emissions have played no small part — has left Pacific Islanders that remained in their homelands after US nuclear testing to deal with rising sea levels and other climate change factors along with health issues related to radiation poisoning. Between the risk of further exposure to nuclear contamination or living through increasingly severe storms and flooding, people are being forced to leave the ancestral homes they fought so hard to stay in.
Living in a white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist society means that harm is not universal. Those already oppressed and neglected by society — mostly Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor — are doomsday’s first victims. As the climate crisis worsens, it will continue to harm, displace, and kill these very communities while exacerbating already tense security conflicts. Those with money will be able to protect themselves against the worst of the consequences, while those without will be left to fend for themselves.
Because nuclear weapons — much like climate change — do not recognize borders, it is in all of our best interest to work toward nuclear abolition alongside the global movements for climate, racial, and social justice to turn back the clock and safeguard a sustainable future for us all.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
As we watch the United States and Russia teeter back toward another nuclear arms race and climate catastrophe becomes a more regular, unwelcome part of our lives, we know these issues aren’t unsolvable. Only a few decades ago, the United States and the Soviet Union ended a nuclear arms race after years of repeatedly bringing humanity to the brink of global annihilation. The ozone layer that had been dangerously thinned during that same time is healing thanks to globally-coordinated efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Humanity, therefore, can make progress and turn back the clock, but we cannot do it alone.
Avoiding “doomsday” and turning back the clock requires bold action now. The longer we wait, the more we put ourselves, our communities, and the environment in irreversible danger. Government leaders owe it to every person on this planet to prioritize working together to prevent further nuclear and climate disasters, with a particular emphasis on reparations for the communities who have already been sacrificed in the endless pursuit of money and power.
To turn back the clock, the nuclear weapons states — the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea — need to cease modernizing and increasing their nuclear arsenals. More than 90 countries are already moving forward toward building a world free of nuclear weapons, as outlined in the Nonproliferation Treaty, through joining and implementing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Ban Treaty.
The Ban Treaty is the first international treaty outright prohibiting the possession, manufacture, development, trade, acquisition, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons. If the nuclear weapons states refuse to join the Ban Treaty, they must instead negotiate their own agreement outlining how they plan to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Part of that process must also include the nuclear weapons states recommitting to existing arms control agreements, like resuming inspections of and seeking a follow-up to New START and pursuing additional agreements to serve as stepping stones toward total elimination.
The trillions of dollars wasted on advancing the weapons designed to destroy us are, without a doubt, much better spent saving lives and repairing the environment. We cannot allow nuclear weapons states to pour funding into developing atomic bombs but not pull their weight in reducing emissions.
The United States alone is on track to spend approximately $2 trillion upgrading its nuclear weapons, which could fund 10.44 million clean energy jobs or supply 4.55 billion homes with solar power for one year. This amount of money can help pay for reinvestments into the communities ravaged by nuclear testing in the forms of health care, environmental testing and repair, reparations, and more. As the United States negotiates the Compact of Free Association — an agreement between the United States and Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau that sets terms for economic and military cooperation between these parties — it has an opportunity to make amends and ensure that Pacific Islanders’ needs do not continue to go unmet.
A two-dimensional understanding of security has reinforced the military-industrial complex’s mission to rob taxpayers of everything they’re worth to line their own pockets. This is why we continue to see the military budget creep closer to one trillion dollars a year while efforts to address actual security concerns like combating climate change or bolstering our public health infrastructure are severely underfunded. Turning back the clock must include reprioritizing our taxpayer dollars away from upgrading nuclear weapons and the already bloated military budget and toward racially, environmentally, and socially sensitive community-centered policies.
Faith Gay is the Government Relations Associate for Win Without War. She engages US policymakers to push forward a more progressive foreign policy, including through climate action and nuclear abolition.
Jasmine Owens is the Associate Director for the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her work and passions focus on centering our collective humanity in the fight for a more just and equitable world, starting with the abolition of nuclear weapons.