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doomsday clock

Tick Tock Goes the Doomsday Clock

It’s the weapons, stupid.

Words: Derek Johnson
Pictures: Phil Desforges

Twice in the first two years of the Trump era, we’ve watched the iconic Doomsday Clock tick closer to midnight. First in 2017, in response to then-candidate Trump’s remarks about nuclear weapons. And again in 2018 when, among other things, it seemed nuclear war between a “Mentally Deranged Dotard” and “Little Rocket Man” might break out at any moment. So naturally, you might think this year’s announcement — that the Clock is holding steady at two-minutes-’til — is good news.

But you’d be wrong.

Every year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists comes together to examine the twin threats to humanity’s survival — nuclear weapons and, more recently, climate change — and after much deliberation emerges from its burrow, like a bunch of wonky groundhogs, to tell us if nuclear winter is coming.

Twelve months ago, when the Clock lurched forward to its current position, it set off alarms we haven’t heard since 1953. Back then, the United States and Soviet Union were one-upping each other with hydrogen bombs — massive next-level weapons that made the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like campfires. It was a terrifying time that most of us, myself included, weren’t around for.

You’ll have noticed a shortage of mushroom clouds lately. And yet, that’s the kind of risk we’re living with: humanity is as close to the edge of the cliff as it’s ever been.

You’ll have noticed a shortage of mushroom clouds lately. And yet, that’s the kind of risk we’re living with: humanity is as close to the edge of the cliff as it’s ever been. That we’ve perched here for a year without plunging to our deaths has more to do with luck than with leadership.

On one hand, the men leading North Korea and the United States have stopped comparing the size of their, erm, nuclear buttons. Even though Pyongyang’s weapons program is moving full steam ahead, that feels like a victory, right? On the other hand, we’re hanging all our hopes on the integrity, sound judgment, and emotional stability of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. So, maybe not.

Either way, even the most optimistic view of the Korean peninsula is offset by big problems in other corners of the international stage, where the Trump administration stars as a wrecking ball. From rolling out plans for a bigger, badder nuclear arsenal, to breaking the terms of the Iran Deal, to torching a Reagan-era nuclear treaty with Russia that helped end the Cold War — Team #AmericaFirst has been busy bringing nukes back in a big way.

When you add to the mix alarming new revelations about the accelerating pace of climate change, it’s no surprise the Clock is where it’s at. But all that misses a deeper truth.

Sure, the prognosis for the planet got worse when America handed an infantile reality TV star the unadulterated power to end life on Earth as we know it. But only marginally. The Doomsday Clock was within striking distance of madness long before the rise of Donald Trump. It will stay there until we take nuclear weapons out of the equation entirely.

That’s sort of the trouble with the Clock. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a valuable marker backed by serious people doing credible work. You can trust that the only special interest at work is a sincere desire to not die off as a species. But as the Clock fluctuates in either direction, closer to midnight and back again, you might be tempted to think there’s a safe zone. After all, that’s how normal risk works: you find whatever level you can live with.

Two minutes to midnight sounds pretty bad, but what about five minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty? What time exactly should we shoot for?

Trick question! It’s called the Doomsday Clock for a reason, folks. We’re talking about the probability of global catastrophe up to and including extinction. No perceived benefit can outweigh that cost. There is no acceptable level of this kind of risk.

We must set our ambitions much, much higher than simply rolling back the hands of the Clock — and instead end the need for it entirely.

There are an estimated 14,485 nuclear weapons in the world today. About a third of these are waiting to be pulled apart, but the rest are all in military service, ready for the order to reduce the planet into an uninhabitable, radioactive rock.

That’s a lot of civilization-ending weaponry. But you may be surprised to learn that there used to be 70,000 of them. It took 30-plus years, but we’ve eliminated 80% of the global nuclear stockpile. If we keep that pace, most of us could live to see a world without these weapons — assuming President Very Stable Genius doesn’t light us all up before Robert Mueller comes knocking.

It sounds impossibly hard only because we’re conditioned by our governments to tolerate nuclear weapons — to run these risks indefinitely in the name of “deterrence.” But once you understand what these risks really mean, it’s obvious the weapons have to go. Thinking we can keep them forever is fantasy-land: eventually, one way or another, they get used. Unless we eliminate them.

This won’t happen overnight, but we can still outrun the Clock. Preserving the treaties that stop these weapons from multiplying is a good place to start. So is reforming national security plans around credible no-first-use commitments. But we can’t stop until every last nuclear weapon is ground into dust.

Derek Johnson is the executive director of Global Zero, the international movement for a world without nuclear weapons. He is a nuclear security expert and recovering lawyer with a background in international law.

Correction issued 3/1: A previous version of this article used the phrase “scientific probability” to refer to the Doomsday Clock’s prediction. This has been amended to reflect the fact that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists does not use scientific methods to determine its prediction.

Derek Johnson

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