Counting humanity down to a new abnormal

The second from last time the Doomsday Clock was bought forward was in 2017 shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. “Welcome to the new abnormal,” said Rachel Bronson, head of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as the clock inched forward to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Their timing was obvious. America had just elected a president who mused openly about using nuclear weapons. He was also in the vanguard of a global backlash against science and expertise. It is one thing to rail against unelected bureaucrats. It is another to campaign against knowledge itself.

This week the clock jumped forward to 100 seconds to midnight — the closest humanity has been to arranging its own extinction by the Bulletin’s measure, which has been expanded to include the threat of global warming alongside nuclear apocalypse. “The world needs to wake up,” said Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former president and chair of the Elders, a group of former world leaders. “We face two simultaneous existential threats.” So here we are. Happy new era to Swamp Notes readers. Or something.

How seriously should we take this? The short answer is very. The longer one entails this intriguing caveat; the clock was born with faulty timing. It gave itself too limited room — or, to be exact, time — for manoeuvre. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 the first year (and hopefully the last) in which nuclear weapons were used. This year is the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1947, the Doomsday clock was launched at three minutes to midnight. It jumped to two minutes to midnight in 1953 after the Soviets and the Americans had tested thermonuclear weapons. It bounced up and down over the following decades.

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Until Trump’s election, it never returned to that close to midnight. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the nuclear Start treaty between the US and Russia, the clock enjoyed a dovish moment of 17 minutes to midnight. Since then it has been creeping the wrong way. It only returned to 11.58pm in 2019 after Trump had pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal. At 100 seconds, we are now in new territory. You can see the Bulletin’s problem. Having kicked off at 11.57pm, the clock was born with too little scope for escalation. Is the world really in greater danger today than it was in 1963, say, during the Cuba missile crisis when it was 12 minutes to midnight?

U.S. President Donald Trump talks during a bilateral meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih (not pictured) at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
© Reuters

But its recent shifts are disturbingly well-reasoned. In the interests of transparency, I should mention that Rachel Bronson is a close friend and came to our wedding (staying on well past midnight, it should be noted). She and her board had ample justification to shift the clock from minutes to seconds. In the last year, the US has pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia. It is now developing missiles to compete with the hypersonic ones that Vladimir Putin keeps boasting about. That leaves the New Start treaty as the final restraint on nuclear proliferation. It expires next year. Trump sounds like he does not want to renew it.

Meanwhile, Iran is now considerably likelier to go nuclear than it was a year ago, let alone five years ago when the nuclear deal was struck. That, in turn, will make other powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt likelier to make a dash for the nuclear threshold. Then there’s North Korea, which is continuing to develop and expand its arsenal. How long before Japan opts for its own breakout?

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There is little space here to elaborate on the global warming element to the Doomsday Clock. This year is also the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The world has added more carbon to the atmosphere since the 1992 Rio Earth summit than in all of human history before it. Whatever the quibbles about the clock’s precise timing, there can be little doubt that the future is more perilous than last year, which in turn was worse than the year before.

Rana, I know you’ve been in Davos. How did people react to Trump telling them to ignore the “pessimists” and environmental “prophets of doom” and carry on pumping fossil fuels? I haven’t read much about this and would be interested in what you observed. For my part, I’m dreaming of a life when it’s always 6pm.

Recommended reading

  • My column this week looks at the maudlin spectacle of Trump’s Senate trial and asks what turned the Grand Old Party into a rigged jury for America’s latter day Caesar.
  • Talking of global warming, my colleague Philip Stephens has a wise piece on the difficulty of forging a politics out of confronting it. I agree with Philip’s conclusion: “The question I have is whether the liberals leading the decarbonisation charge are ready to finance the big income transfers needed to make it politically sustainable.”
  • I’m late to this but I strongly recommend James Oakes’ essay in The New York Review of Books about the failure of post-civil war reconstruction and the victory of Jim Crow. He provides a limpid summary of the 1868 impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson — the first in US history — that contains strange echoes of today.
  • Finally, those who missed the New York Times’s excellent profile of the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader, Mohammed bin Zayed, should catch up with it now. Zayed never gives interviews and is perhaps the least well-known powerful figure in the world.
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Rana Foroohar responds

Don’t worry Ed, as the old country song goes, it’s always 6pm somewhere. Here in Davos, where I write a bit after midnight, I’m sorry to say that much of the American business crowd has bought into Trump’s storyline that nothing matters more than another quarter of growth, even if we enjoy it on a scorching planet. That hypocrisy will be the topic of my own Monday column.

Europeans would disagree, of course — George Soros made the threat of climate change a major part of his annual World Economic Forum speech. But unless they have dual passports, they won’t be voting.

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