Fake news, nukes & climate change: two minutes to midnight

p2605 Doomsday Clock 2019Humanity 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 civilisation in extraordinary danger.

 

This situation is described as “A new abnormal” in the annual Doomsday Clock announcement by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

 

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project.

 

They 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 decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognised indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.

 

In this year’s statement the board goes on to say:

 

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 board today [24 January] 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.

 

 

For the full statement, see here.

 

 

– prepared by Kieran Finnane

 

 

 

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8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Hal Duell
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:01 am

    I see the new phenomenon of fake news as nothing more than the attempt by the various governments of the world to stay ahead of and direct the empowerment of the many brought about by the emergent social media platforms. If we are so inclined, we can now read widely, read between the lines, take it all with a grain of salt and then make up our own minds. No government is comfortable with such empowerment, but then they never have been.
    I cannot think of one single sane reason for nuclear weapons, but then I think the same of chemical and biological weapons. All three, together or singly, can kill all of us.
    I do think we are caught up in a time of global climate change. For me the telling proof is in the frequency and severity of storms. Put a pan of water on the stove, and as it heats observe the air directly over the water. It becomes agitated.
    Now consider the world’s oceans which cover 70% of our planet. That they are warming, if only by a little, seems to be an accepted fact. I’ll leave the why of this to others, but I do think we are riding a wave.

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  2. John Bell
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 12:11 am

    @ Domenico: “I doubt that anyone could provide you with a scientific explanation behind global warming that you could accept” when you lead your comment with that sentence you imply that I do am not open to reason.
    You do me an injustice mate.
    I too read and listen to and absorb the science on catastrophic global warming.
    I just happen to see a lot of merit in a scientific view that is not yours.
    I believe (a) the science is not settled on CO2 and anthropenic as the cause (b) that a UN Climate Fund is ridiculous.
    Already China and Turkey have tried to get their hands on it as “third world countries”.
    I repeat my claim: Where is the scientific comparative study of anthropogenic global warming v solar beyond our resources (nature) warming? There are none that I am aware of. Are you aware of any?

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  3. Evelyne Roullet
    Posted January 26, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    Hal: Let’s talk about “damage done by anthropogenic humans and the damage done by solar and nature forces beyond our control”.
    We in Alice, like anywhere in the world, have no control over the forces of nature. But if we look at Alice Springs 50 or 60 years ago, we will feel and realise that our metal fences, our brick buildings, our bitumen roads have increased the environmental temperature.
    As I am writing, I have a split system cooling down my room, but in doing so it transforms the verandah where it is installed into a sauna: 20C inside but 52C outside.
    This temperature kills my pot plants which need more water (I had to move them).
    You still think that we are not a bit responsible in the acceleration of the climate change?

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  4. Posted January 26, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    @ John Bell: I doubt that anyone could provide you with a scientific explanation behind global warming that you could accept.
    As our inaction brings on the loop that leads to run-away warming and ever-worsening global conditions, I hope you will find comfort in your smug semantics.
    I prefer to take my advice from a scientific body of knowledge and to make every effort to adapt to a “future” that is, in many ways, already here. Best of luck.

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  5. Bev Emmott
    Posted January 26, 2019 at 8:25 am

    The idea is to be prepared but what are we prepared for?
    War, climate change, earthquakes, food shortages (remembering we are 1500 kms from the nearest big town).
    If war or a nuclear calmity come, do we have shelter that will protect us?
    If drought or heat waves come, where do we get our water from? It won’t matter about race or colour. It will happen to all
    If we don’t do it now then when these things happen there will be no answers for anyone, and the groaning and gnashing of teeth mentioned in the bible just might happen within our lifetime.

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  6. John Bell
    Posted January 25, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    Kieran. Isn’t it ironic that once it was Christians who believed in God and Sodom and Gomorrah who predicted the Apocalypse.
    Now the catastrophic global warming alarmists make them look like pussycats.
    I am still waiting for a definitive scientific study that compares the damage done by anthropogenic humans with the damage done by solar and nature forces beyond our control.
    Betcha we will never see such a comparative study in our lifetimes. Better just to believe in the Apocalypse, hey? One way or the other.

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  7. Psuedo Guru
    Posted January 25, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    #1: Climate change. Wake up Australia. Use surplus water. The Northern Development Corp has $$s to pump massive volumes of surplus fresh water to Central Oz from the WA Ord River Scheme. Create work and feed the world.
    #2: Alice Springs Base, a nuclear target? Not if world food supplies are threatened.

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  8. Posted January 25, 2019 at 10:36 am

    A very timely and sobering assessment, Kieran.
    With the thought “Think Global, Act Local” ringing in my head, I believe there has not been a more urgent time to develop a community plan for our town.
    The threats posed by the future are now clear for all to see, from the effects of climate change to the downturn in the local economy.
    Our decision-makers, from the mayor down, are letting our community down through their lack of action in preparing us for that future.
    It is time for our community to look past these do-nothing dinosaurs and take matters into their own hands.

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