Scientists: Doomsday Clock moves closer to world nuclear disaster
The 37 kiloton "Priscilla" nuclear test was detonated at the Nevada Test Site in 1957. | U.S. Dept. of Energy

WASHINGTON—Tick, tick, tick…the world’s Doomsday Clock is the closest it’s ever been to forecasting global disaster.

The clock, published since 1945 by the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and adjusted yearly, was reset at a Jan. 25 D.C. press conference to 90 seconds before midnight, compared to 100 seconds in early 2022. The farthest it’s ever been: 17 minutes to midnight after the Cold War ended.

The world is closer than ever, speakers said, to a modern Armageddon, though they didn’t use that loaded word. “The environment is both perilous and unstable,” warned Rachel Bronson, president of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, which publishes the Bulletin and sets the clock.

If the Doomsday Clock ever hits midnight, look for Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a worldwide scale. The federation has made that point often before, most notably in 2020, on the 75th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the two Japanese cities, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945.

Speakers again advocated de-escalating the nuclear arms race by abolishing the weapons through international agreements—an unlikely prospect since the U.S. has unilaterally canceled remaining important nuclear disarmament deals with Russia.

That disturbed the scientists. They said world leaders should cooperate to denuclearize the globe, just as they have cooperated in fighting the coronavirus. Unmentioned: Snags in that “cooperation” which keep life-saving vaccines from poor nations.

Buried deep in one paper

And buried deep in one paper adjoining the printed report was that the U.S. and Russia abrogated one major nuclear de-armament treaty almost a decade ago, and that the most important of those pacts expires in 2026. There have been no negotiations on its renewal, that paper reports. Instead, the U.S. and NATO have been placing nuclear weapons and vehicles capable of carrying them closer and closer to the borders of Russia, the second huge nuclear power. Russia has said it will not rule out the use of nuclear weapons to defend itself if forced.

The scientists and the Bulletin’s advisory board said the prime, but not the only, reason for now converting the clock’s countdown from minutes to seconds is the war in Ukraine which brings the two biggest world nuclear powers closer and closer to fighting one another directly.

But the war in Ukraine is not the only cause of a looming global catastrophe, they cautioned. Others include future worldwide pandemics, nuclear-armed enemies India and Pakistan facing each other in South Asia, rampant disinformation spewing from the right wing, and especially global warming.

“Is humanity safer or more at risk this year than last year? Is humanity safer or more at risk this year than in the last 75 years?” of the Doomsday Clock, asked Bronson. Her answer to both questions: More at risk.

Just as last year’s clock reset preceded the invasion of Ukraine by a month, this year’s reset preceded the Western escalation of the war in Ukraine with the announcement about sending in powerful U.S. and German tanks to fight the Russians in Ukraine.

Speakers unveiled the clock at 10 am in D.C. Shortly thereafter President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz upped the ante in the war by ordering the dispatch of 14 Leopard tanks from Germany and 31 Abrams tanks from the U.S. to Ukraine.

The U.S. tanks will take several months to get there, and Ukrainians will need training to operate them, U.S. officials told the Cable News Network. But the dispatch still shows U.S. determination to defeat Russia in Ukraine, rather than a determination to try to settle the conflict. Except for China, the U.S. and its allies now almost completely surround Russia.

The report, by a group of Western scientists and civilian advisers also sharply criticized the Russian invasion and it declared: “We called out Ukraine as a potential flashpoint in an increasingly volatile international security environment” in 2022, even before the onslaught, Bronson noted.

The scientists, advisers, and speakers on video before the press conference all emphasized that it is up to world leaders to not use, or even threaten to use nukes, but to instead talk peace to bring the globe back from the brink—and that it’s up to the rest of us to pressure them to do so.

That’s an implicit criticism, though not by name, of Biden, Scholz, the NATO alliance, and of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The scientists did not forget about the importance of mass movements for peace. “Reducing risks needs the commitment of all levels of society” including not just political leaders but global populations, Bronson said. “There is no clear path that forges a just peace under the shadow of the nuclear threat.”

In ending the Ukrainian-Russian war, “The U.S. government, NATO, and its allies have a multitude of channels to explore dialogue. We urge leaders to do that.”

Wake up leaders!

“Wake up leaders!” insisted former Irish President Mary Robinson, president of the science group’s civilian advisory board. “At 90 seconds to midnight, there really is no time to waste.”

“Some have told me it’s naïve to say we can live without nuclear weapons,” John Wester, the Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe said in a pre-press conference video. “I think it’s much more naïve to say we can live with them.” Archbishop Wester’s started a peace group in New Mexico’s capital city.

Speakers and the report cited other dangers. Topping them: Action, or lack of it, against global warming.

Scientists have said that without reductions in fossil fuel usage and emissions, the world’s temperatures will drastically rise, the climate will shift, and everything will deteriorate. Impacts, the report said, range from less food to more and worse floods. Indeed, with a third of Pakistan underwater from “a monsoon on steroids,” climate change already has slammed it and other parts of the world, the report noted.

“The rise in emissions in 2022 accelerated the ongoing increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will continue so long as emissions of carbon dioxide continue. Not only did weather extremes continue to plague diverse parts of the globe, but they were more evidently attributable to climate change,” the  report says.

Nuclear warfare could make the entire planet look like Hiroshima did after the U.S. nuked the city in 1945. | Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/AP

Cutting carbon emissions includes reducing the use of natural gas, as well as coal and oil, speakers said. The accompanying report criticizes European reliance on natural gas from the world’s two largest producers, the U.S. and Russia. Some scientists now call natural gas by its real, and more ominous, name: Methane.

“By 2030, either we will do what the scientists tell us to do” to combat global warming, “or we will condemn future generations to a terrible world,” Robinson declared.

The report detailed one threat not usually associated with the Doomsday Clock: The rise of deliberate disinformation, virtually all from the right, in world politics. The report praised Biden for restoring science, not disinformation, to decision-making, unlike his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

“On the other hand, cyber-enabled disinformation continues unabated in the United States,” the report warned. “Political opposition to a ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ proposed by the Department of Homeland Security was grounded in willful misrepresentation and the politics of personal destruction.

“The opposition succeeded in causing the department to withdraw its proposal. These types of attacks are hardly new but are emblematic of corruption in the information environment.”

That political section of the report also found hopeful signs. It specifically cited the defeat of Trump’s election deniers in the 2022 U.S. midterms and French President Emanuel Macron’s election to a second term, defeating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. Left unsaid: In his prior run against Le Pen in 2017, Macron, a corporate-oriented technocrat, won two-to-one. Last year, he won 58.5%-41.5%.

Also omitted: Biden beat Trump, but despite the coronavirus-caused economic depression, Trump’s lies and denial of the pandemic’s impact, and his embrace of fascist forces, Biden’s Democrats lost congressional seats in 2020 and then lost their House majority in 2022. Trumpites now rule the GOP.

There were three other ominous political developments of the type the report worried about, also unmentioned. All occurred after it went to the printer. In one, Brazilian rightist and militarist Jair Bolsonaro lost a presidential runoff to Workers Party nominee Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, but Bolsanaro’s backers, blockaded roads, rioted, and trashed Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court. Top police officials disregarded the mayhem. The military stayed in its barracks.

Just before the Brazilian chaos, Italy elected right-winger Giorgia Meloni as Prime Minister. And just after it, Israeli rightist Benjamin Netanyahu—who worked closely with Trump—reclaimed the PM job there, backed by the nation’s extreme Jewish nationalists. Israel is a nuclear-armed nation, as is France.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.