Nuclear war seems closer and more real than it has in a generation. That existential fear has been affirmed by the organization of nuclear scientists who have spent seven decades trying to turn humanity away from nuclear weapons:
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its ‘Doomsday Clock’ 30 seconds closer to ‘Midnight,’ an unofficial barometer of how close the World stands to a catastrophe. It now stands 2 minutes away.
The clock dates back to 1947, when the scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project wanted to create a mechanism to warn of escalating global tensions and the danger of a global Armageddon.
The ‘Doomsday Clock’ has since become the global arbiter of dread … or hope. The clock started at seven minutes to ‘Midnight’, its two-dozen changes since marking the shifting tensions of the Cold War.
It is peacetime rating peaked in 1991 at 17 minutes to midnight as the Soviet Union broke apart. It has gradually ticked darker ever since, first as nuclear weapons proliferated to countries like India and Pakistan, and then as it began to factor in other global threats, like climate change.
Last year, for the first time, it ticked forward 30 seconds, reflecting the rise of nationalism and the threat to the post-war international order.
Over the years, warning systems on the American and the Russian side have mistaken satellites, flocks of birds, and even the rising moon as incoming surprise missile attacks.
Each time until now, careful reflection and cautious leadership – leadership on all sides in all countries – in these crises has de-escalated rather than escalated.
The current system makes nuclear war easier to start than to avoid; there is precious little room for reflection. Once they launch, there is no mechanism to stop them. No country on the planet possesses the capability to shoot down an incoming strike.