A new abnormal: It is still two minutes to midnight

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.

Humanity now faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention.

These major threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.

In the nuclear realm, the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and announced it would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), grave steps towards a complete dismantlement of the global arms control process.

Although the United States and North Korea moved away from the bellicose rhetoric of 2017, the urgent North Korean nuclear dilemma remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, the world’s nuclear nations proceeded with programs of “nuclear modernization” that are all but indistinguishable from a worldwide arms race, and the military doctrines of Russia and the United States have increasingly eroded the long-held taboo against the use of nuclear weapons.

On the climate change front, global carbon dioxide emissions—which seemed to plateau earlier this decade—resumed an upward climb in 2017 and 2018. To halt the worst effects of climate change, the countries of the world must cut net worldwide carbon dioxide emissions to zero by well before the end of the century.

By such a measure, the world community failed dismally last year.

At the same time, the main global accord on addressing climate change—the 2015 Paris agreement—has become increasingly beleaguered.

The United States announced it will withdraw from that pact, and at the December climate summit in Poland, the United States allied itself with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait (all major petroleum-producing countries) to undercut an expert report on climate change impacts that the Paris climate conference had itself commissioned.

Amid these unfortunate nuclear and climate developments, there was a rise during the last year in the intentional corruption of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends.

In many forums, including particularly social media, nationalist leaders and their surrogates lied shamelessly, insisting that their lies were truth, and the truth “fake news.”

These intentional attempts to distort reality exaggerate social divisions, undermine trust in science, and diminish confidence in elections and democratic institutions. Because these distortions attack the rational discourse required for solving the complex problems facing humanity, cyber-enabled information warfare aggravates other major global dangers—including those posed by nuclear weapons and climate change—as it undermines civilization generally.

There is nothing normal about the complex and frightening reality just described.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board today sets the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight—the closest it has ever been to apocalypse. Though unchanged from 2018, this setting should be taken not as a sign of stability but as a stark warning to leaders and citizens around the world.

The current international security situation—what we call the “new abnormal”—has extended over two years now. It’s a state as worrisome as the most dangerous times of the Cold War, a state that features an unpredictable and shifting landscape of simmering disputes that multiply the chances for major military conflict to erupt.

This new abnormal is simply too volatile and dangerous to accept as a continuing state of world affairs.

Dire as the present may seem, there is nothing hopeless or predestined about the future. The Bulletin resolutely believes that human beings can manage the dangers posed by the technology that humans create. Indeed, in the 1990s, leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union took bold action that made nuclear war markedly less likely—and that led the Bulletin to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock far from midnight.

But threats must be acknowledged before they can be effectively confronted. The current situation—in which intersecting nuclear, climate, and information warfare threats all go insufficiently recognized and addressed, when they are not simply ignored or denied—is unsustainable. The longer world leaders and citizens carelessly inhabit this new and abnormal reality, the more likely the world is to experience catastrophe of historic proportions.

Worrisome nuclear trends continue.

The global nuclear order has been deteriorating for many years, and 2018 was no exception to this trend. Relations between the United States and both Russia and China have grown more fraught. The architecture of nuclear arms control built up over half a century continues to decay, while the process of negotiating reductions in nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles is moribund. The nuclear-armed states remain committed to their arsenals, are determined to modernize their capabilities, and have increasingly espoused doctrines that envision nuclear use. Brash leaders, intense diplomatic disputes, and regional instabilities combine to create an international context in which nuclear dangers are all too real.

A number of negative developments colored the nuclear story in 2018.

First, the United States abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that imposed unprecedented constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and allowed unprecedented verification of Iran’s nuclear facilities and activities. On May 8, President Trump announced that the United States would cease to observe the agreement and would instead launch a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran. So far, Iran and the other parties have continued to comply with the agreement, despite the absence of US participation. It is unclear whether they will keep the agreement alive, but one thing is certain: The Trump administration has launched an assault on one of the major nuclear nonproliferation successes of recent years and done so in a way that increases the likelihood of conflict with Iran and further heightens tensions with long-term allies.

Second, in October the Trump administration announced that it intends to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which bans missiles of intermediate range. Though bedeviled by reciprocal complaints about compliance, the INF agreement has been in force for more than 30 years and has contributed to stability in Europe. Its potential death foreshadows a new competition to deploy weapons long banned. Unfortunately, while treaties are being eliminated, there is no process in place that will create a new regime of negotiated constraints on nuclear behavior. For the first time since the 1980s, it appears the world is headed into an unregulated nuclear environment—an outcome that could reproduce the intense arms racing that was the hallmark of the early, unregulated decades of the nuclear age.

Third, the longstanding, urgent North Korean nuclear issue remains unresolved. Some good news did emerge in 2018. The bellicose rhetoric of 2017, which had raised fears of war, is largely gone. The summit between President Trump and President Kim in Singapore in June 2018 appears to have been a diplomatic step forward. But not a single substantive and enduring concrete step was taken to constrain or roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, and modernization of its nuclear capabilities continues. The chummy exchanges between the two leaders have reverted to wary challenges, and the potential for nuclear instability in Northeast Asia persists, largely unabated.

Fourth, even as arms control efforts wane, modernization of nuclear forces around the world continues apace. In his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin described an extensive nuclear modernization program, justified as a response to US missile defense efforts. The Trump administration has added to the enormously expensive comprehensive nuclear modernization program it inherited from the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the nuclear capabilities of the other seven nuclear armed states are not governed by any negotiated constraints, and several of them—notably India and Pakistan—continue to expand and modernize their capabilities. These long-term modernization programs envision the possession of substantial nuclear capabilities for decades to come, with little indication of interest in reducing or constraining nuclear forces.

Fifth, reliance on nuclear weapons appears to be growing, and military doctrines are evolving in ways that increase the focus on actually using nuclear weapons. The Trump administration’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review is doubly worrisome from this point of view. It spotlights the claim that Russia has adopted a highly escalatory nuclear doctrine. And it insists that the United States too must be prepared to use nuclear weapons in a wide array of circumstances, and so should invest in new, more-usable nuclear weapons. The longstanding hopes that nuclear weapons would recede into the background of international politics are being dashed.

The disturbing developments in 2018 are the latest indications that the nuclear order is deteriorating and that nuclear risks are increasing. Urgent action is necessary to reverse the trends that are taking the world down a perilous nuclear path.

Ominous climate change trends.

The existential threat from human-caused global warming is ominous and getting worse. Every year that human activities continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere irreversibly ratchets up the future level of human suffering and ecosystem destruction that will be wrought by global climate disruption. The key measure of improvement on the climate front is the extent of progress toward bringing global net carbon dioxide emissions to zero. On this measure, the countries of the world have failed dismally.

Global carbon dioxide emissions rates had been rising exponentially until 2012 but ceased growing from 2013 to 2016. Even if this emissions plateau had continued, it would not have halted the growth of warming. Net emissions need to ultimately be brought to zero to do so, given the persistence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for up to thousands of years. The ominous news from 2017 and 2018 is that world emissions appear to have resumed their upward climb.

Even nations that have strongly supported the need to decarbonize are not doing enough. Preliminary estimates show that almost all countries contributed to the rise in emissions. Some countries, including the United States and some members of the EU, increased their emissions after years of making progress in reducing them.

The United States has also abandoned its responsibilities to lead the world decarbonization effort. The United States has more resources than poorer nations have; its failure to ambitiously reduce emissions represents an act of gross negligence. The United States stood alone while the other G20 countries signed on to a portion of a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to tackle climate change. Then in 2018, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland, the United States joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—all major oil producers—to undercut a report on the impacts of climate change.

Although emissions estimates for 2018 are preliminary, what is known supports a continuation of an ominous trend. That the world is losing ground in its efforts to achieve net zero emissions is set against a backdrop of increasing scientific evidence for the severity of impacts of warming of Earth. Despite the waning of El Niño early in the year, 2018 is likely to be the fourth warmest year on record as measured by global mean temperature, with previous record highs in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Greenland ice is melting at an unprecedented rate.

Global warming has contributed to the occurrence of catastrophes, including the massive wildfires seen this year in California, Greece, and Sweden, and the deadly heat waves suffered by Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. The US National Climate Assessment has forecast increasingly severe impacts on the economy, human health, agriculture, and natural ecosystems. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has shown that even a modest increase in global mean warming—from 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees—will bring severe impacts. Yet if the world were on track to fulfill its commitments under the Paris climate accords, which it clearly is not, that would be insufficient to halt warming at 2 degrees.

As long as there is carbon left in the ground, efforts to keep it there will reduce the toll of future suffering from climate change. But even amid the worsening manifestations of an increasingly disrupted climate, denialists continue to stymie action. President Trump, dismissing the National Climate Assessment prepared by his own agencies, declared stubbornly, “I don’t believe it.”

There is still time to rescue the world from truly catastrophic effects of climate change. For such a rescue to become reality, however, progress toward decarbonization must pick up pace dramatically, and very soon.

The threat of information warfare & other disruptive technologies. 

Nuclear war and climate change threaten the physical infrastructure that provides the food, energy, and other necessities required for human life. But to thrive, prosper, and advance, people also need reliable information about their world—factual information, in abundance.

Today, however, chaos reigns in much of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends. In many forums for political and societal discourse, we now see national leaders shouting about fake news, by which they mean information they do not like. These same leaders lie shamelessly, calling their lies truth. Acting across national boundaries, these leaders and their surrogates exacerbate existing divisions, creating rage and increasing distrust in public and private institutions. Using unsupported anecdotes and sketchy rhetoric, denialists raise fear and doubt regarding well-established science about climate change and other urgent issues. Established institutions of the government, journalism, and education—institutions that have traditionally provided stability—are under attack precisely because they have provided stability.

In this environment, communication inflames passions rather than informing reason.

Many countries have long employed propaganda and lies—otherwise known as information warfare—to advance their interests. But a quantitative change of sufficient magnitude qualifies as a qualitative change. In the Internet age, the volume and velocity of information has increased by orders of magnitude. Modern information technology and social media allow users easy connectivity and high degrees of anonymity across national borders. This widespread, inexpensive access to worldwide audiences has allowed practitioners of information warfare to broadcast false and manipulative messages to large populations at low cost, and at the same time to tailor political messages to narrow interest groups.

By manipulating the natural cognitive predispositions of human beings, information warriors can exacerbate prejudices, biases, and ideological differences. They can invoke “alternative facts” to advance political positions based on outright falsehoods. Rather than a cyber Armageddon that causes financial meltdown or nationwide electrical blackouts, this is the more insidious use of cyber tools to target and exploit human insecurities and vulnerabilities, eroding the trust and cohesion on which civilized societies rely.

The Enlightenment sought to establish reason as the foundational pillar of civilized discourse. In this conception, logical argument matters, and the truth of a statement is tested by examination of values, assumptions, and facts, not by how many people believe it. Cyber-enabled information warfare threatens to replace these pillars of logic and truth with fantasy and rage. If unchecked, such distortion will undermine the world’s ability to acknowledge and address the urgent threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change and will increase the potential for an end to civilization as we know it. The international community should begin multilateral discussions that aim to discourage cyber-enabled information warfare and to buttress institutions dedicated to rational, fact- based discourse and governance.

The world faces other major threats from disruptive technologies; developments in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and cyber sabotage are of particular concern. The velocity of change across these and other technological fronts is extremely high; the international effort to manage these rapid advances has been, to date, grossly insufficient.

A signal event of 2018 was the editing of a human genome in China, an unfortunate demonstration of the weakness of institutional constraints on genetic engineering and other biotechnological research. The advent of “designer” human beings would constitute a truly history-changing event with a significant potential for unforeseen, large, and dangerous consequences. The international community has a common interest in delaying experimentation into the editing of human genomes until such research can receive the highest level of scientific and ethical review. At the same time, other biological hazards—ranging from biological terrorist attacks to the emergence of deadly, rapidly spreading diseases—continue to threaten world security. The management of synthetic biology and other biothreats must become a world priority.

Advances in machine intelligence—often called artificial intelligence or AI—are also progressing at a rapid and largely unmanaged pace. The Science and Security Board is particularly concerned about the incorporation of AI into autonomous weaponry that makes“kill” decisions without human supervision. But AI research and development cut across a wide array of human activities. Because AI will have increasingly large military, economic, and social effects in coming decades, the international community must develop a cooperative system that maximizes the positive potential of advances in machine cognition while diminishing potential downsides.

Beyond the information warfare previously described, the sabotage of computing networks via cyber hacking constitutes a multifaceted threat to global security. The sophisticated sabotage of the “Internet of Things”—computer networks that control major financial and power infrastructure and have access to more than 20 billion personal devices—could have impacts so severe as to inspire military responses, potentially involving nuclear weapons. Here, too, more effective international management regimes are desperately needed.

Toward a safer, more sustainable world. 

The Doomsday Clock was first set at two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the Soviet Union exploded a thermonuclear device within a year of the first US hydrogen bomb test. In ensuing decades, the two nations engaged in a furious arms race that culminated in the 1980s, when the world inventory of nuclear warheads topped 60,000.

From that point until fairly recently, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union (and Russia, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) crafted a series of arms control agreements that drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed. These agreements were based not merely on trust, but also on verification and consultation, and as they were expanded over time, the threat of a global nuclear holocaust seemed to fade into the background, a concern of the past, dealt with long ago.

The belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished was and is a mirage.

The continuing danger posed by nuclear weapons burst into world news headlines in 2017, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged bombastic threats of nuclear attack and the US-Russia nuclear rivalry re-emerged. In January 2018, the Science and Security Board moved the hands of the Clock to two minutes before midnight. At that time, the board asked that its judgement “be interpreted exactly as it is meant—as an urgent warning of global danger.” By keeping the Clock at two minutes—the closest it has ever been to apocalypse—the Science and Security Board today highlights an unacceptable reality that remains largely unrecognized by the public at large: The future of the world is now in extreme danger from multiple intersecting and potentially existential threats.

This situation—what we call “the new abnormal”—is untenable. In this extraordinarily dangerous state of affairs, nuclear war and climate change pose severe threats to humanity, yet go largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the use of cyber-enabled information warfare by countries, leaders and subnational groups of many stripes around the world exacerbates these enormous threats and endangers the information ecosystem that underpins democracy and civilization as we know it. At the same time, other disruptive technologies complicate and further darken the world security situation.

This situation cannot—must not—continue. And it need not.

As the Science and Security Board noted last year: “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.”

US President Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim made progress in cooling tensions on the Korea Peninsula in the last year, toning down their provocative rhetoric, reducing behavior that could lead to conflict, and opening talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The Science and Security Board applauds these efforts but notes that little real progress on dismantling the North Korean nuclear program has been made. We urge the United States and North Korea to move forward with the difficult negotiations that will be necessary to reach agreement on concrete steps toward a denuclearization process that will benefit the North and the rest of the world.

Beyond the Korean situation, there are many practical, concrete steps that leaders could take—and citizens should demand—to improve the current, abnormal, and absolutely unacceptable state of world security affairs.

These common-sense actions would make the world safer:

  • US and Russian leaders should return to the negotiating table to resolve differences over the INF treaty; to extend the nuclear arsenal limits of New START beyond 2021 and 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 start talks aiming toward elimination of battlefield nuclear weapons.
  • 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 citizens should demand climate action from their government. Climate change is a serious and worsening threat to humanity. Citizens should insist that their governments acknowledge it and act accordingly. President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change agreement was a dire mistake. The Trump administration should revisit that decision, which runs counter to credible science.
  • The temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement—to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and, ideally, below 1.5 degrees—is consistent with consensus views on climate science, eminently achievable, and economically viable, if poor countries are given the support they need. But countries have to act promptly and redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions well beyond their initial inadequate pledges to the Paris agreement.
  • The Trump administration should revisit its lamentable decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for limiting Iran’s nuclear program. The Iran agreement is not perfect, but it serves the interest of the international community in restraining the spread of nuclear weapons.
  • The international community should begin multilateral discussions aimed at establishing norms of behavior, both domestic and international, that 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. Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns—and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy—are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers.

The “new abnormal” that we describe, and that the world now inhabits, is unsustainable and extremely dangerous. The world security situation can be improved, if leaders seek change and citizens demand it. It is two minutes to midnight, but there is no reason the Doomsday Clock cannot move away from catastrophe. It has done so in the past, because wise leaders acted—under pressure from informed and engaged citizens around the world.

Today, citizens in every country can use the power of the Internet to fight against social media disinformation and 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.

Given the inaction of their leaders to date, citizens of the world should make a loud and clear demand: #RewindTheDoomsdayClock.


Connect with NJTODAY.NET


Join NJTODAY.NET's free Email List to receive occasional updates delivered right to your email address!
Email ads@njtoday.net for advertising information Send stuff to NJTODAY.NET Like Us On Facebook Follow Us On Twitter Download this week's issue of NJTODAY.NET
Print Friendly, PDF & Email