WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – Atomic scientists reset their symbolic “Doomsday Clock” to its closest time to midnight in 64 years on Thursday, saying the world was closer to catastrophe due to threats such as nuclear weapons, climate change and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.
The timepiece, devised by the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and displayed on its website, is widely viewed as an indicator of the world’s vulnerability to disaster.
Its hands were moved to two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight, from three minutes.
“The Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than it’s ever been in the lifetime of almost everyone in this room,” Lawrence Krauss, the bulletin’s chair, told a news conference in Washington.
The clock was last set this close to midnight in 1953, marking the start of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thursday’s reset was the first since 2015.
Krauss, a theoretical physicist, said Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin carried a large share of the blame for the heightened threat.
The bulletin cited nuclear volatility, especially as the United States and Russia seek to modernize their atomic arsenals and remain at odds in war-torn countries such as Syria and Ukraine.
Trump has suggested South Korea and Japan could acquire nuclear weapons to compete with North Korea, which has conducted nuclear tests. Trump has also raised doubts about the future of a multilateral nuclear pact with Iran.
Chinese aid to Pakistan in the nuclear weapons field, as well as the expansion of India and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, were also worrisome, the bulletin said in a statement.
The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal, “but only somewhat.”
While nations had taken actions to combat climate change, the bulletin noted, there appeared to be little appetite for additional cuts to carbon dioxide emissions.
It said the Trump administration nominees raise the possibility the government will be “openly hostile to progress toward even the most modest efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption.”
The world also faces cyberthreats, the bulletin said. U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia intervened in the presidential election to help Trump raised the possibility of similar attacks on other democracies, it said.
The bulletin was founded by scientists who helped develop the United States’ first atomic weapons. Its Science and Security Board decides on the clock’s hands in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes Nobel laureates.
The symbolic clock, based at the University of Chicago and maintained by the magazine Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has served as a monitor on the possible use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, with midnight representing global catastrophe.
“Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change,” the Bulletin’s board said in a statement.
“This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change,” they said.
The board took aim at Trump further, saying that “even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable Cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”
The clock last ticked ahead two minutes in 2015 to reflect concerns about such factors as a slower pace of nuclear stockpile reduction and insufficient efforts to halt greenhouse gas emissions.
Created in 1947 to measure the likelihood of disastrous nuclear conflict, the clock now also includes other threats, such as climate change, biological weapons and cyberthreats.
The clock, initially set at seven minutes to midnight, was as close as two minutes to midnight in 1953 following U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests, and as far away as 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, when the Cold War era ended.