Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a nontechnical academic journal which covers global security and public policy issues related to the dangers posed by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and emerging technologies and diseases. It has been published continuously since 1945, when it was founded by former Manhattan Project physicists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. Since 1947, it's Science and Security Board has maintained the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face that represents a countdown to possible global catastrophe.
Quotes of the Science and Security Board
It is 30 Seconds Closer to Midnight (2017)
- Announcement of the closest move of the Doomsday Clock towards midnight, since 1953, in "It is 30 seconds closer to midnight" (25 January 2017) by Lynn Eden, Rod Ewing, Sivan Kartha, Herbert Lin, Suzet McKinney, Steven Miller, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Ramamurti Rajaraman, Robert Rosner, Jennifer Sims, Susan Solomon, Richard C. J. Somerville, Sharon Squassoni, and David Titley
- 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 United States and Russia — which together possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons — remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases.
The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal — but only somewhat.
- The board's decision to move the clock less than a full minute — something it has never before done — reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days. Many of his cabinet nominations are not yet confirmed by the Senate or installed in government, and he has had little time to take official action.
Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have disputed the basics of climate science.
In short, 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.
- Climate change should not be a partisan political issue. The well-established physics of Earth’s carbon cycle is neither liberal nor conservative in character. The planet will continue to warm to dangerous levels so long as carbon dioxide continues to be pumped into the atmosphere — regardless of who is chosen to lead the United States or any other country.
International leaders need to refocus their attention on achieving the additional carbon emission reductions that are needed to capitalize on the promise of the Paris Accord.
- In December, US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had intervened in the 2016 US presidential campaign to help Donald Trump in ways that highlight the vulnerability of critical information systems in cyberspace. Information monocultures, fake news, and the hacking and release of politically sensitive emails may have had an illegitimate impact on the US presidential election, threatening the fabric of democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to decide the direction of public policy — including policy relating to existential threats such as nuclear weapons and climate change. If not controlled, these types of electoral attacks could be launched against democracies around the world, undermining belief in representative government and thereby endangering humanity as a whole.
- Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term.
- For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: "The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon." In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.
It is now two minutes to midnight (2018)
- 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, edited by John Mecklin (25 January 2018) · PDF
- In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago — and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.
The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States.
Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. … To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger — and its immediacy.
- On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now. Global carbon dioxide emissions have not yet shown the beginnings of the sustained decline towards zero that must occur if ever-greater warming is to be avoided.
- Beyond the nuclear and climate domains, technological change is disrupting democracies around the world as states seek and exploit opportunities to use information technologies as weapons, among them internet-based deception campaigns aimed at undermining elections and popular confidence in institutions essential to free thought and global security.
- In 2017, the United States backed away from its long-standing leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges. Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions — or understand when US pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surreal sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening.
- Because of the extraordinary danger of the current moment, the Science and Security Board today moves the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes to midnight — the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.
The Science and Security Board hopes this resetting of the Clock will be interpreted exactly as it is meant—as an urgent warning of global danger. The time for world leaders to address looming nuclear danger and the continuing march of climate change is long past. The time for the citizens of the world to demand such action is now:
The untenable nuclear threat.
- The risk that nuclear weapons may be used — intentionally or because of miscalculation — grew last year around the globe.
North Korea has long defied UN Security Council resolutions to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but the acceleration of its tests in 2017 reflects new resolve to acquire sophisticated nuclear weapons. North Korea has or soon will have capabilities to match its verbal threats — specifically, a thermonuclear warhead and a ballistic missile that can carry it to the US mainland.
- Nuclear risks have been compounded by US-Russia relations that now feature more conflict than cooperation. Coordination on nuclear risk reduction is all but dead, and no solution to disputes over the INF Treaty — a landmark agreement to rid Europe of medium-range nuclear missiles — is readily apparent. Both sides allege violations, but Russia’s deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile, if not addressed, could trigger a collapse of the treaty. Such a collapse would make what should have been a relatively easy five-year extension of the New START arms control pact much harder to achieve and could terminate an arms control process that dates back to the early 1970s.
For the first time in many years, in fact, no US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations are under way.
An insufficient response to climate change. 
- Last year, the US government pursued unwise and ineffectual policies on climate change, following through on a promise to derail past US climate policies. The Trump administration, which includes avowed climate denialists in top positions at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and other key agencies, has announced its plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In its rush to dismantle rational climate and energy policy, the administration has ignored scientific fact and well-founded economic analyses.
These US government climate decisions transpired against a backdrop of worsening climate change and high-impact weather-related disasters. This year past, the Caribbean region and other parts of North America suffered a season of historic damage from exceedingly powerful hurricanes. Extreme heat waves occurred in Australia, South America, Asia, Europe, and California, with mounting evidence that heat-related illness and death are correspondingly increasing. The Arctic ice cap achieved its smallest-ever winter maximum in 2017, the third year in a row that this record has been broken. The United States has witnessed devastating wildfires, likely exacerbated by extreme drought and subsequent heavy rains that spurred underbrush growth. When the data are assessed, 2017 is almost certain to continue the trend of exceptional global warmth: All the warmest years in the instrumental record, which extends back to the 1800s, have — excepting one year in the late 1990s — occurred in the 21st century.
- Despite the sophisticated disinformation campaign run by climate denialists, the unfolding consequences of an altered climate are a harrowing testament to an undeniable reality: The science linking climate change to human activity — mainly the burning of fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — is sound. The world continues to warm as costly impacts mount, and there is evidence that overall rates of sea level rise are accelerating—regardless of protestations to the contrary.
Especially against these trends, it is heartening that the US government’s defection from the Paris Agreement did not prompt its unravelling or diminish its support within the United States at large. The “We Are Still In” movement signals a strong commitment within the United States — by some 1,700 businesses, 250 cities, 200 communities of faith, and nine states, representing more than 40 percent of the US population — to its international climate commitments and to the validity of scientific facts.
This reaffirmation is reassuring, and other countries have maintained their steadfast support for climate action, reconfirmed their commitments to global climate cooperation, and clearly acknowledged that more needs to be done.
- French President Emmanuel Macron’s sober message to global leaders assembled at December’s global climate summit in Paris was a reality check after the heady climate negotiations his country hosted two years earlier: “We’re losing the battle. We’re not moving quickly enough. We all need to act.” And indeed, after plateauing for a few years, greenhouse gas emissions resumed their stubborn rise in 2017.
As we have noted before, the true measure of the Paris Agreement is whether nations actually fulfill their pledges to cut emissions, strengthen those pledges, and see to it that global greenhouse gas emissions start declining in short order and head toward zero. As we drift yet farther from this goal, the urgency of shifting course becomes greater, and the existential threat posed by climate change looms larger.
Emerging technologies and global risk.
- The Science and Security Board is deeply concerned about the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves — a loss that the abuse of information technology has fostered. Attempts to intervene in elections through sophisticated hacking operations and the spread of disinformation have threatened democracy, which relies on an informed electorate to reach reasonable decisions on public policy — including policy relating to nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global threats. Meanwhile, corporate leaders in the information domain, including established media outlets and internet companies such as Facebook and Google, have been slow to adopt protocols to prevent misuse of their services and protect citizens from manipulation. The international community should establish new measures that discourage and penalize all cross-border subversions of democracy.
- Last year, the Science and Security Board warned that “Technological innovation is occurring at a speed that challenges society’s ability to keep pace. While limited at the current time, potentially existential threats posed by a host of emerging technologies need to be monitored, and to the extent possible anticipated, as the 21st century unfolds.”
If anything, the velocity of technological change has only increased in the past year, and so our warning holds for 2018. But beyond monitoring advances in emerging technology, the board believes that world leaders also need to seek better collective methods of managing those advances, so the positive aspects of new technologies are encouraged and malign uses discovered and countered. The sophisticated hacking of the “Internet of Things,” including computer systems that control major financial and power infrastructure and have access to more than 20 billion personal devices; the development of autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision; and the possible misuse of advances in synthetic biology, including the revolutionary Crispr gene-editing tool, already pose potential global security risks. Those risks could expand without strong public institutions and new management regimes. The increasing pace of technological change requires faster development of those tools.
How to turn back the Clock.
- In 1953, former Manhattan Project scientist and Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch set the hands of the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, writing, “The achievement of a thermonuclear explosion by the Soviet Union, following on the heels of the development of ‘thermonuclear devices’ in America, means that the time, dreaded by scientists since 1945, when each major nation will hold the power of destroying, at will, the urban civilization of any other nation, is close at hand.”
The Science and Security Board now again moves the hands of the Clock to two minutes before midnight. But the current, extremely dangerous state of world affairs need not be permanent. The means for managing dangerous technology and reducing global-scale risk exist; indeed, many of them are well-known and within society’s reach, if leaders pay reasonable attention to preserving the long-term prospects of humanity, and if citizens demand that they do so.
This is a dangerous time, but the danger is of our own making. Humankind has invented the implements of apocalypse; so can it invent the methods of controlling and eventually eliminating them.
- The US and North Korean governments should open multiple channels of communication. At a minimum, military-to-military communications can help reduce the likelihood of inadvertent war on the Korean Peninsula. Keeping diplomatic channels open for talks without preconditions is another common-sense way to reduce tensions. As leading security expert Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University recently wrote: “Such talks should not be seen as a reward or concession to Pyongyang, nor construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea. They could, however, deliver the message that while Washington fully intends to defend itself and its allies from any attack with a devastating retaliatory response, it does not otherwise intend to attack North Korea or pursue regime change."
- The world community should pursue, as a short-term goal, the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests. North Korea is the only country to violate the norm against nuclear testing in 20 years. Over time, the United States should seek North Korea’s signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty—and then, along with China, at long last also ratify the treaty.
- The Trump administration should abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s nuclear program unless credible evidence emerges that Iran is not complying with the agreement or Iran agrees to an alternative approach that meets US national security needs.
- The United States and Russia should discuss and adopt measures to prevent peacetime military incidents along the borders of NATO. Provocative military exercises and maneuvers hold the potential for crisis escalation. Both militaries must exercise restraint and professionalism, adhering to all norms developed to avoid conflict and accidental encounters.
- US and Russian leaders should return to the negotiating table to resolve differences over the INF treaty; to seek further reductions in nuclear arms; to discuss a lowering of the alert status of the nuclear arsenals of both countries; to limit nuclear modernization programs that threaten to create a new nuclear arms race; and to ensure that new tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons are not built and that existing tactical weapons are never used on the battlefield.
- US citizens should demand, in all legal ways, climate action from their government. Climate change is a real and serious threat to humanity. Citizens should insist that their governments acknowledge it and act accordingly.
- Governments around the world should redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they go well beyond the initial, inadequate pledges under the Paris Agreement. The temperature goal under that agreement — to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — is consistent with consensus views on climate science, is eminently achievable, and is economically viable, provided that poorer countries are given the support they need to make the post-carbon transition. But the time window for achieving this goal is rapidly closing.
- The international community should establish new protocols to discourage and penalize the misuse of information technology to undermine public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Strong and accountable institutions are necessary to prevent deception campaigns that are a real threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to enact policies to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other global dangers.
- The countries of the world should collaborate on creating institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially malign or catastrophic misuses of new technologies, particularly as regards autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision and advances in synthetic biology that could, if misused, pose a global threat.
- The failure of world leaders to address the largest threats to humanity’s future is lamentable — but that failure can be reversed. It is two minutes to midnight, but the Doomsday Clock has ticked away from midnight in the past, and during the next year, the world can again move it further from apocalypse. The warning the Science and Security Board now sends is clear, the danger obvious and imminent. The opportunity to reduce the danger is equally clear.
The world has seen the threat posed by the misuse of information technology and witnessed the vulnerability of democracies to disinformation. But there is a flip side to the abuse of social media. Leaders react when citizens insist they do so, and citizens around the world can use the power of the internet to improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change. They can seize the opportunity to make a safer and saner world.
They can #rewindtheDoomsdayClock.
Quotes about Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
- In January 2018, the experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight, where it had stood during the darkest days of the Cold War, from 1953 to 1960. The latest move of the hands was precipitated by the recklessness in Trump’s nuclear thinking and the deepening crisis over Korea. Trump wondered aloud about the point of having nuclear weapons if he couldn’t use them. His answer was to make them more usable, which he did with his new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the first since Obama’s 2010 NPR, which had reduced the role of nuclear weapons in the US defense posture. The 2018 NPR significantly elevated their role, permitting use in response to vaguely defined “extreme circumstances,” such as cyberattacks or attacks on the infrastructure of both the United States and its “allies and partners.” The review doubled down on Obama’s unconscionable 30-year trillion-dollar modernization of all parts of the nuclear arsenal. The actual cost looks to be closer to $1.7 trillion and climbing. To make matters worse, all eight other nuclear powers are undertaking their own modernizations, though on a far more modest scale. Russia, it should be noted, actually cut its defense spending this past year.
Acting like a hegemon, the United States, starting in 1999, took advantage of Russian weakness and broke its promise not to expand NATO, eventually adding 13 countries, the last of which was Montenegro, in 2017.
But now, in March 2018, Putin was declaring that the US effort had failed. He unveiled the existence of five new nuclear weapons, all of which could circumvent US missile-defense systems.
- The year just past proved perilous and chaotic, a year in which many of the risks foreshadowed in our last Clock statement came into full relief. In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.
Although the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists focuses on nuclear risk, climate change, and emerging technologies, the nuclear landscape takes center stage in this year’s Clock statement. Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing. … It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.
- Rachel Bronson, in her preface to the 2018 Bulletin: "Statement from the President and CEO" (25 January 2018)
- Days after Donald Trump took the oath of office, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the Doomsday Clock to 2½ minutes to midnight, in part because of destabilizing comments and threats from America’s new commander in chief. One year later, we are moving the clock forward again by 30 seconds, due to the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.
The Science and Security Board for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists assesses that the world is not only more dangerous now than it was a year ago; it is as threatening as it has been since World War II. In fact, the Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight today as it was in 1953, when Cold War fears perhaps reached their highest levels.
- The Bulletin's clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age...
- Eugene Rabinowitch, co-founder of the Bulletin, as quoted in "The Doomsday Clock", in The Southeast Missourian (22 February 1984)