(CN) – For the second time in two years, a group of scientists said humankind is closer than ever to sealing its own fate – this time thanks to fake news and misuse of information technology – and on Thursday moved the doomsday clock to two minutes to midnight.
Introduced in 1947, the clock is a symbolic instrument informing the public when humankind is facing imminent disaster. The movement of its hands, either forward or backward, is decided by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The scientists placed the hands of the 1947 clock at seven minutes to midnight. Since then it has moved closer to and farther away from midnight, depending on world events.
In the early days of the clock, the scientists most feared nuclear annihilation. In 1953, both the United States and the former Soviet Union had tested their first hydrogen bombs and the clock moved closer to midnight than it had ever been before: two minutes til.
Various nuclear treaties in the 1960s and 1970s moved the hands back; breaches of the treaties pushed them forward. The deep freeze in U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1980s moved the clock to three minutes to midnight, until the end of the Cold War and the hope it brought to humanity pushed the clock back to 17 minutes before midnight – the farthest it’s ever been from doomsday.
The scientists added climate change to the list of humanity’s woes in 2007 – five minutes to midnight – and by 2015, with nuclear weapons modernization and tests by North Korea and Iran, and a warming earth that shows no signs of abating, the clock was set at three minutes to doomsday.
Where it sat until the election of Donald J. Trump.
In 2017, the science and security board moved the minute hand of the doomsday clock to 11:57:30, and saddled Trump with much of the blame. They again cited nuclear proliferation and climate change, but noted Trump’s promises to impede what little progress has been made to address both.
This year, the board said “reckless language in the nuclear realm” over the past year has made already dangerous situations worse. A new arms race is heating up, the group said, one that will be expensive and could lead to “accidents and misperceptions” – putting us that much closer to our undoing.
“To call the nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger – and its immediacy,” the board wrote.
In addition to the danger of nuclear war and the threat of climate change, the board for the first time noted technology’s role in undoing democracies as a source of concern for our continued existence.
“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,” the board wrote, referring to Russia’s likely interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But lest the United States take on the role of victim, the board had stern words for her leaders and president.
“There has also been a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent U.S. actions. In 2017, the United States backed away from its longstanding leadership role in the world, reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges,” the board wrote.
“Neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict U.S. actions – or understand when U.S. pronouncements are real, and when they are mere rhetoric. International diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surrealistic sense of unreality that makes the world security situation ever more threatening.”
For these reasons, the board said, the doomsday clock now sits at 11:58, matching the darkest year in the clock’s history precisely.