Doomsday Clock Close as Ever to Midnight in 2021 over COVID, Nukes, Climate Change

Leading experts have left the Doomsday Clock at its closest point to midnight ever in 2021, signaling a continued concern at the highest level yet toward existential threats to humanity.

Members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveiled this year's deliberation on the symbolic Doomsday Clock at a virtual event Wednesday. The clock was set to 100 seconds, unchanged from the 2020 finding, which marked the latest the time has ever been pushed since the clock was devised in 1947. The Bulletinwas established two years earlier by famed physicist Albert Einstein in response to the first-ever atomic bombings launched by the U.S. at the end of World War II.

The threat to humanity's survival is even higher today, the group's experts found, and many found the U.S. has played a unique role in endangering the world as we know it.

In addition to nuclear and environmental issues, 2020's dramatic decision foresaw failures to sufficiently address the worsening COVID-19 outbreak, which at that time had just begun to draw international intention. The clock is traditionally focused on nuclear risk, climate change and new disruptive technologies, but includes other risks to humanity as well.

Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, pointed to COVID-19 as a sign that the world remained woefully ill-equipped to deal with potentially apocalyptic threats.

"The hands of the Doomsday Clock remain at 100 seconds to midnight, as close to midnight as ever," Bronson said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "The lethal and fear-inspiring COVID-19 pandemic serves as a historic 'wake-up call,' a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change."

doomsday, clock, 100, seconds, 2021
Members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board, Robert Rosner and Suzet McKinney, reveal the 2021 setting of the Doomsday Clock: It is still 100 seconds to midnight. Thomas Gaulkin/Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, who serves as executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists called out the world's top two nuclear powers Russia and the United States, as well as China, a rapidly rising military and economic power who he felt also had a responsibility to take action to tackle international issues.

"The U.S., Russia and the world's nuclear powers must stop shouting at each other," Brown said. "It's time to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them. Likewise, with climate change: the US, China and other big countries must get serious about cutting lethal carbon emissions – now. It's 100 seconds to midnight. Wake up!"

Responding to a question from Newsweek at Wednesday's virtual event, Brown spoke of the role played by the U.S. in The Bulletin's decision to set the clock to 100 seconds last year, and keep it there this year, especially in terms of shifting the blame toward rival powers.

"In Washington today, the emphasis on Russia's misdeeds is very, very powerful, and I don't want to argue the weight of all those misdeeds, I just want to say they're infinitesimal compared to the holocaust of a nuclear blunder," Brown said. "The same with China, yes, there are serious issues, problems misdeeds, but compared to the devastation of climate change, they're small."

He described the reality as an inconvenient truth, that many in politics were unwilling to divulge or discuss that the U.S. was just as, if not more responsible in some ways, than its competitors for the current, dangerous state of affairs.

"I speak as someone who's been around politicians, I know the people in charge, I've met them," Brown said. "They know their stuff, but they're not willing to tell the American people the danger that 100 seconds to midnight entails. So yes, we are contributing, we're acting as though we are the good, and they are the bad."

Robert Rosner, a University of Chicago astrophysicist who serves as chair of The Bulletin's Science and Security Board also weighed in.

"I would say that the U.S. has played a major role in increasing the risks to humanity," Rosner said.

Compounding on former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from major agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, as well as his failure to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Rosner pointed to the previous administration's contribution to "the erosion of the information ecosystem."

[The former] U.S. president, sadly, has been a major distributor of false information, not just in these areas and in the pandemic, but in many others," Rosner said, "and this led to a really dramatic erosion of public confidence in the capacity of government, in the ability of government to tell the truth to its citizens and provide accurate information and, and a roadmap to action to deal with the risks."

Many analysts saw President Joe Biden taking office last week as having a positive effect on the U.S. contribution to international security. In seven days, Biden has already restored Washington's commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and set the stage for a New START renewal. He's also previously promised to restore U.S. commitment to the JCPOA.

But his commitments too had their limits. The U.S. has remained silent in the face of the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) going into effect Friday, a ban outright dismissed by most major nuclear powers and endorsed by none.

Beatrice Fihn, who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize as executive director for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has urged Biden to speak up in favor of the TPNW. She reiterated this call in the wake of Wednesday's Doomsday Clock reveal.

"While the leaders of nuclear-armed states have been moving the world in the wrong direction, disarmament progress has fallen to civil society and political figures in countries across Africa, Asia and South America," Fihn told Newsweek. "They have shown true leadership and stopped the backwards momentum of the Doomsday Clock with the nuclear ban treaty. We have stopped the bleeding and created a legal path forward, but it is time that President Biden and others join us in progress on disarmament."

She saw New START as just the beginning of what Biden could potentially do for non-proliferation should he choose to prioritize it.

"Recommitting to a decade-old bilateral agreement with Russia is a start, but the world needs more than that at this critical moment," Fihn said. "It took President Biden just two weeks to make more progress on disarmament than Trump did in four years. Imagine what the new administration could accomplish with strong and sustained commitment with nuclear weapons elimination as an end goal."