EDIT: Thank you all for the excellent questions! We’ve got to sign off for now.

See you next time! -Rachel, Daniel, & Sivan

We are Rachel Bronson, Daniel Holz, and Sivan Kartha, members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which just moved the Doomsday Clock, a metaphor for how much time humanity has left before potential destruction to 100 seconds to midnight.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists grew out of a gathering of Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago, who decided they could “no longer remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” For decades, they have set the hands of the Doomsday Clock to indicate how close human civilization is to ending itself. In changing the clock this year they cited world leaders ending or undermining major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year; lack of action in the climate emergency; and the rise of ‘information warfare.’

Rachel is a foreign policy and energy expert and president & CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Daniel is an astrophysicist who specializes in gravitational waves and black holes, and is a member of the Science and Security board at the Bulletin.

Sivan analyzes strategies to address climate change at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, and is a member of the Science & Security board.

Ask us anything—we’ll be online to answer your questions around 3PM CT!

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/4g4WAnl

Comments: 1091 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

BrazenBull382 karma

Despite warnings of WWIII, Iran has now fallen out of the headlines. Meanwhile, trade deals with China seem to be an anathema to war with that superpower. N Korea is on good terms with U.S., and rogue states don't seem to have access to dirty bombs or other nuclear devices.

What would it take for the clock to move backwards?

BulletinOfTheAtomic138 karma

The Doomsday Clock has moved forward and backward, as far away as 17 minutes to midnight and as close to 100 seconds, where it is now. We’ve moved it back for major arms control agreements, agreements between the US and Russians that take their weapons off hair trigger alert, steps taken between nuclear powers like India and Pakistan to reduce the threat of a nuclear exchange, and other steps that we believe would make us safer. Take a look at our report here for additional suggestions. We would move it back for major global commitments to reduce climate emissions, and clear agreements or technologies put in place to reduce them. -RB

fwambo42226 karma

It seems like as you get closer and closer to midnight, you seem to be putting yourself into a situation where changes need to be more and more critical to justify a move forward. How is this being handled by the team?

BulletinOfTheAtomic127 karma

It’s quite tough actually, and we talk about it regularly. To date, our feeling has been to set the time, based on what we know, our judgement of the current state of affairs, and the trajectories we see. -RB

Deadmeat553206 karma

I'm curious about how you would respond to complaints raised that the Doomsday clock exaggerates the severity of global issues while oversimplifying issues and also neglecting to differentiate the immediate threat of nuclear warfare from more longterm threats like climate change - while both are extremely dangerous, one could decimate humanity in an hour while the other could do so across a few decades.

To be clear, I'm not making these accusations myself, but I am curious as to how you would respond.

So, what are your thoughts?

BulletinOfTheAtomic168 karma

The Doomsday Clock is a blunt instrument that summarizes an extremely complex situation. We chose a simple and accessible symbol to try to effectively convey our concern for the fate of humanity. As you say, some of the threats are short term, and some are longer term. We attempt to factor all of these into the setting of the Clock, and detail our reasoning in the Clock statement which accompanies the announcement of the time. -DH

aclarioncall181 karma

In September 2019, your organisation published an influential piece on the current relevance of the NPT, and need to “ditch it” in favour of the newer Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The article received substantial flak for its bold assertion that NPT has been largely ineffective (wrt to the Second Pillar), and it’s central objectives have been corrupted by NWS. Another article published by you the following month in response to this argued the contrary - that NPT continues to serve as a landmark international treaty on non-proliferation, and mass withdrawals would only jeopardise the existing legal framework for nuclear non-proliferation enacted over the course of 50 years.

I’m curious as to how much the debate between the NPT- TPNW solely has impacted setting the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight- given the significance that these treaties hold on the non-proliferation regime. I understand from your Press Release that the US, China & Russia all agreeing to oppose the TPNW is an issue, but how serious do you think the slow ratification for the TPNW in general is going to impact the world nuclear order? What role will the 2020 NPT Review Conference play at setting the clock back, if at all?

BulletinOfTheAtomic153 karma

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT and we’re quite concerned about it. In the news conference we held in DC on Thursday 1/23, Sharon Squassoni highlighted this debate in her remarks. We are concerned that the NPT is not keeping up with 21st century challenges, and that support for TPNW doesn’t include those states that have nuclear weapons. This is one reason we do not think the current nuclear environment is safer this year compared to years before. -RB

Existential_Delusion85 karma

Not serious:

Do y'all like "Two Minutes to Midnight" by Iron Maiden?

BulletinOfTheAtomic90 karma

Absolutely, but also the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Doomsday Clock” and Hozier’s “Wasteland, Baby!” which was inspired by the clock.Hozier talks about it here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ewx3j7SakawUnrelated: Neko Case is pretty awesome, too. And Smashing Pumpkins are from Chicago, just sayin’.

-RB

treeshew69 karma

I get that the doomsday clock intention is good, but do you have any contingency to avoid sounding like "the boy who cried wolf"?

BulletinOfTheAtomic44 karma

Our concern is that our ability to deal with these challenges to humanity has diminished. We provide a report every year, and do a lot of outreach to justify why we’ve set the time where it is. We have also moved the Clock away from Midnight when we recognize progress. Through efforts like these, and the day to day efforts of our team of experts and writers, we do our best to respond to the concern you raise. -RB

Interesting-Cut44 karma

When did the clock start? Is 0:00 supposed to be the dawn of mankind (using which definition?) and at the end of the "day" it's the apocalypse?

Why do you express the amount of the time we supposedly have left in terms of seconds and not actually years or decades?

How do you arrive at the number and how do you quantify the current state of affairs?

BulletinOfTheAtomic62 karma

The clock was designed by Martyl Langsdorf, and was first introduced in 1947. She set it to 7 minutes to midnight because “it looked good to my eye”. Martyl was married to Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., a Manhattan Project scientist who co-founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She was keenly aware of the feeling of great political urgency and the overarching belief that greater political engagement could make us safer, and tried to capture this in her design. -DH

Zweihander_Sin31 karma

International treaties such as the Paris Protocol are non-binding, and therefore countries are not required to follow its mechanisms. Despite this, what countries, if any, have made the most progress in combating the climate crisis?

BulletinOfTheAtomic27 karma

It’s a good point… the Paris agreement requires countries to submit pledges to reduce emissions, but doesn’t really require that those pledges add up to enough progress to actually solve the problem, or even that countries meet their pledges. But, that said, even if there aren’t countries that have completely turned it around, there are bright spots where real progress is happening. For example, it’s a great thing that governments and universities invested money and brainpower in developing new renewable energy technologies like solar power and wind power over the years, and corporations started taking it up too once it started getting profitable. Prices have come down quickly and there’s a lot more power coming from solar and wind than would have been expected. China alone has really pushed things forward, and accounts for more than a third of all the wind power in the world, and a third of all the solar power. And France has banned the extraction of all fossil fuels -- coal, oil and gas -- in its mainland and territories and Ireland is following suit. There’s a lot happening in improving agriculture as well, with countries helping to support organic agriculture in contrast to heavily fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture. Bhutan is well on its way to being 100% organic, and Kyrgyzstan and Denmark are going that way too. - SK

Velvy7116 karma

What’s the single biggest event you think might happen this year that will have the biggest impact on the clock (good or bad)?

BulletinOfTheAtomic14 karma

Hard to say what the single biggest step could be, since climate change and nuclear catastrophe are very distinct kinds of threats with (in some ways) distinct causes and responses. But there is definitely a common threat and solution. A huge problem in both realms has been the weakening of the international commitment to working together to solve common problems. The nuclear arms control architecture has been eroding, and countries are becoming more distrustful and antagonistic. The global climate regime has become weaker, with voluntary pledges replacing binding targets. If a major blow to will of countries to work together to solve major common global challenges occurred, that’d make the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe (either by war or blunder) much more likely. It would also make it much more likely that countries would ever be willing to invest in halting their GHG pollution into the shared global atmosphere, which would lead to wholly unmanageable climate disruption. -SK

Togapr3310 karma

I guess the question is...now what? Do you trust international leaders to heed warnings? My whole life this has been a thing. Al Gore with Climate Change --- etc, etc.

I don't trust our leaders to accept science and take seriously where we are at on the doomsday clock.

BulletinOfTheAtomic26 karma

This has become an increasing concern of our own as well, and is part of the reason that the clock has moved forward. Some leaders have become more willing to willfully ignore, and even deny or undermine, well-established scientific conclusions that are underpinned by plenty of evidence. In the statement that we presented when we announced this year’s clock time, we really stressed that the two major existential threats facing humanity -- nuclear catastrophe and climate disruption “... would be serious enough if leaders around the world were focused on managing the danger and reducing the risk of catastrophe. Instead, over the last two years, we have seen influential leaders denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats—international agreements with strong verification regimes—in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain. By undermining cooperative, science- and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity, these leaders have helped to create a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later. -SK

ratbas9 karma

If the clock is done are we obligated to self-destruct? When is the clock officially a moot point?

BulletinOfTheAtomic24 karma

It would be wonderful to be able to retire the Doomsday Clock, and to declare that civilization is no longer at risk of self-destruction. However, we are a long way from doing this at the moment. That being said, the Doomsday Clock can easily move further away from midnight, and has done so in the past. -DH

it-is-not9 karma

So, considering the current state the world is in, do you think the doomsday clock can go back a couple of minutes or are we at a point of no return?

BulletinOfTheAtomic24 karma

We are hopeful that we can turn back the hands of the clock. We propose concrete steps in our clock statement that we believe would help achieve this. As we say at the end of the statement: “Citizens around the world have the power to unmask 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—through public protest, at the ballot box, and in many other creative ways—that their leaders take immediate steps to reduce the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change. It is now 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to unite—and act!” - DH

pepperstuck9 karma

in the US, there's an entire generation that's spent their whole lives in wartime -- how do you adequately sound the alarm when war has been a constant, low-level background noise for two decades?

BulletinOfTheAtomic22 karma

This is a major concern, and one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of the clock. There’s a tendency to become inured to the danger---the “frog in a pot” problem. This is especially worrisome for climate change, where it happens slowly enough that future generations might think that glaciers were a fiction and that a submerged New York City is similar to stories of Atlantis. Part of the goal of the Doomsday Clock announcement it to break through this complacency. -DH

TheRealSilverBlade7 karma

If the clock moves to midnight, and nothing happens for years or a decade, would the clock be moved back?

BulletinOfTheAtomic17 karma

We hope the clock never actually strikes midnight, since this would imply that civilization is at an end! Over time we have moved the hands of the clock both forwards and backwards as circumstances warrant. -DH

pepperstuck6 karma

do you try to aim for policymakers or citizens? how often DOES civilian opinion dictate either nuclear weapons moves or environmental issues?

BulletinOfTheAtomic16 karma

We are disappointed with the political action being taken to keep us safe. We think there is a lot citizens around the world can do to make sure that their leaders know they care about these issues. Politicians, especially in democracies react to their voters. In our report, which can be found here, we point out that the fact that increasing attention to the climate emergency from everyday citizens is being noticed by politicians and is therefore becoming part of political platforms globally. We don’t think this is happening fast enough, the science is outrunning the politics, but it is noteworthy. -RB

Successful-Days6 karma

Why did each of you feel drawn to being part of BAS?

BulletinOfTheAtomic18 karma

Once you become aware of these profound threats to our very existence, it is difficult to ignore them and just blithely carry on with one’s normal everyday routine. I have a background in astrophysics, spending much of my time thinking about black holes and gravitational waves. But I have always wanted to find a way to use my technical background to more directly contribute to society, and I have found that the BAS offers a meaningful way for me to do so. -DH

At this moment I am very concerned about the assault on science and expertise, exactly when we need both to address humanity's greatest challenges. If you haven’t read it, I recommend Shawn Otto’s War on Science. When I was asked to run the Bulletin, I jumped at the opportunity. The issues that it focuses on: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies are changing quickly and we need a place to discuss and debate the political and ethical consequences of science’s advancement. The Bulletin is one of the places where this discussion is taking places. That’s why I was drawn to it. Thanks for asking. -RB

It’s really easy to become overwhelmed by threats as huge as nuclear catastrophe and climate disruption. But if you’re working with other people who fully understand the magnitude of the danger, but are knowledgeable enough to help society understand what’s needed to fix things, and that are hopeful and passionate enough to do something about it, then it’s possible to be motivated, rather than just despair. I’d recommend to anybody to find other people who are hopeful and passionate about solving big problems that you also think are important. -SK

JagerofHunters6 karma

Out of all the threats facing the globe and those laid out by yall, what threat do you believe is not getting the attention it deserves from the public?

BulletinOfTheAtomic7 karma

Unfortunately, we worry that none of these threats are getting sufficient attention, especially by policy makers. This is one of the main reasons for setting the clock to 100 seconds to midnight. -DH

Zweihander_Sin4 karma

The two defining issues that the Doomsday Clock has identified as a threat to our species are climate change and nuclear warfare. What issues do you predict may rise up in the future that may pose a similar magnitude of threat to human civilization?

BulletinOfTheAtomic10 karma

We are keeping a close eye on certain disruptive technologies, particularly gene editing, those related to engineered pandemics, the future use of artificial intelligence and, as we outlined in this year’s report, cyber enabled threats. -RB

Mercury_Steele3 karma

[deleted]

BulletinOfTheAtomic15 karma

The clock is a metaphor. That being said, our decisions as to whether the clock advances or retreats are founded on scientific analysis and discussion. -DH

Lazy_McLazington2 karma

Hey Daniel, Rachel, and Sivan! Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this.

With the 2020 election around the corner we might see a new president in office. If that happens, what advice would you give to the next president of the United States in regards to nuclear proliferation?

Follow up question: What do you think would be the most reasonable path towards nuclear disarmament?

BulletinOfTheAtomic10 karma

In the nuclear realm, we really want the US President to extend New Start. That is the last remaining arms control agreement between the US and the Russians. It expires in February 2021, a year from now. This US President could sign to extend it, and a new President would only have days to do so. Either way, that is a concrete action that we could do to make the world safer. We would then want to build on it.

This spring, all countries will be at the UN, reviewing the NPT agreement. It’s in trouble. Developing a path forward where we continue to work towards reducing nuclear weapons for nuclear armed states, and moving away from those without them from seeking them, is another opportunity to reduce proliferation. -RB

dayofthedead2041 karma

What's your opinion of the Graphic Novel, Watchmen? Also it's repeated use and references to the Doomsday Clock?

BulletinOfTheAtomic5 karma

We think the original comics by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins are visionary, and still relevant--and Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” series on HBO was extraordinary. Honestly, we are happy when the Clock is used to draw attention to these very challenging issues. -RB

Stupid_Enderman1 karma

How does the doomsday clock measure how close we are to permanently damaging the earth? Edit: Spelling

BulletinOfTheAtomic8 karma

The doomsday clock is a reflection not just of how dangerous the global situation is, but whether the dangers are so serious as to be threats to the very existence of human civilization as we know it. We are, unfortunately, in an extremely dangerous situation, and the threats -- nuclear catastrophe and climate disruption -- are indeed existential threats, and we are in the process of weakening what steps were taken in the past to try to manage these threats. Though things have been heading in a worse direction, both threats can be stopped before Doomsday really comes, if we act wisely and urgently. That said, there are definitely things that humankind has done that has permanently damaged the earth. We have brought about what scientists call the “Sixth Great Extinction”. (The others were caused by things like a massive asteroid hitting the earth, or a cataclysmic volcano eruption.) To think that humankind could have brought about it’s very own mass extinction, with entire species disappearing from the face of the earth due to human impacts such as climate change, agricultural and industrial toxins, and the clearing of wilderness. How much of this can go on before it leads to some kind of catastrophic decline is something we don’t know, and hopefully will never find out. But, just as we’re causing it, it’s thankfully in our hands to reverse - SK

JagerofHunters1 karma

Thank you all for doing this AMA! In the coming years, what do you see as the best realistic path towards moving the clock back?

BulletinOfTheAtomic2 karma

Increasing engagement from all of us, to ask our political leaders to address these issues. That is the only way they will know that we are watching, and that we are concerned. It might feel small, but political leaders tell us they need to hear from the public. So let’s take them at their word. -RB

sojayn0 karma

Thank you for being another data point for us all, despite the negativity the messenger gets, it is really appreciated that the Clock remains as a beacon.

question:

What is your current understanding of global cooperation on health risks- topically nCoronavirus? (Or ebola/sars?).

Is the WHO effective working with governments? Is there a warning or a winning that you have witnessed?

BulletinOfTheAtomic6 karma

Thank you! A major theme in our report is the deteriorating global architecture to deal with global crises. This is true with nuclear proliferation, and climate change, and it is true for global health. Our global health experts are worried that both domestically in the US and internationally we are not investing what we need to be in the capacity to respond. It wasn’t called out as a major reason to move the clock this year, but it was part of the discussion, and those experts certainly didn’t feel we could move it away from midnight and agreed with the other experts about the need for a more coordinated global response. -RB