Doomsday clock at 100 seconds to midnight ... The age of war, famine, fire, floods, pestilence and political disparity


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In the aftermath of the US elections, the world is not a better place with the doomsday clock moving closer to 12.

The current state of war, famine, fire, floods, pestilence and political disparity are just symptoms of an overall global malaise currently featuring AGW and Covid19.

The global society is disintegrating led by the futile Brexit disaster at a time when social and political coalescence and collaboration are more urgently required.

It is 100 seconds to midnight

Date: January 27, 2021


Accelerating nuclear programs in multiple countries moved the world into less stable and manageable territory last year. Development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missile defenses, and weapons-delivery systems that can flexibly use conventional or nuclear warheads may raise the probability of miscalculation in times of tension. Events like the deadly assault earlier this month on the US Capitol renewed legitimate concerns about national leaders who have sole control of the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear nations, however, have ignored or undermined practical and available diplomatic and security tools for managing nuclear risks. By our estimation, the potential for the world to stumble into nuclear war—an ever-present danger over the last 75 years—increased in 2020. An extremely dangerous global failure to address existential threats—what we called “the new abnormal” in 2019—tightened its grip in the nuclear realm in the past year, increasing the likelihood of catastrophe.

Governments have also failed to sufficiently address climate change.


As we noted in our last Doomsday Clock statement, the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have intensified in recent years because of a threat multiplier: the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend. Here, again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. False and misleading information disseminated over the internet—including misrepresentation of COVID-19’s seriousness, promotion of false cures, and politicization of low-cost protective measures such as face masks—created social chaos in many countries and led to unnecessary death. This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens. False conspiracy theories about a “stolen” presidential election led to rioting that resulted in the death of five people and the first hostile occupation of the US Capitol since 1814.

In 2020, online lying literally killed.

Considered by themselves, these negative events in the nuclear, climate change, and disinformation arenas might justify moving the clock closer to midnight. But amid the gloom, we see some positive developments. The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems. For example, the United States has already announced it is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia for five years. In the context of a post-pandemic return to relative stability, more such demonstrations of renewed interest in and respect for science and multilateral cooperation could create the basis for a safer and saner world.

Because these developments have not yet yielded substantive progress toward a safer world, they are not sufficient to move the Clock away from midnight. But they are positive and do weigh against the profound dangers of institutional decay, science denialism, aggressive nuclear postures, and disinformation campaigns discussed in our 2020 statement. The members of the Science and Security Board therefore set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse and the same time we set in 2020. It is deeply unfortunate that the global response to the pandemic over the past year has explicitly validated many of the concerns we have voiced for decades.

We continue to believe that human beings can manage the dangers posed by modern technology, even in times of crisis. But if humanity is to avoid an existential catastrophe—one that would dwarf anything it has yet seen—national leaders must do a far better job of countering disinformation, heeding science, and cooperating to diminish global risks. Citizens around the world can and should organize and demand—through public protests, at ballot boxes, and in other creative ways—that their governments reorder their priorities and cooperate domestically and internationally to reduce the risk of nuclear war, climate change, and other global disasters, including pandemic disease.

We have experienced the consequences of inaction. It is time to respond.

A dark nuclear landscape, with glimmers of hope

In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die. Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate, while destabilizing “advances” in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defenses continued. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use. There continues to be an extraordinary disregard for the potential of an accidental nuclear war, even as well-documented examples of frighteningly close calls have emerged.

US and Russian nuclear modernization efforts continued to accelerate, and North Korea, China, India, and Pakistan pursued “improved” and larger nuclear forces. Some of these modernization programs are beginning to field weapons with dangerous enhancements, like Russia’s nuclear-tipped Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles, which are being installed on new SS-29 (Sarmat) missiles designed to replace 1980s-era intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Russia continues to field battalions of intermediate-range, ground-launched, nuclear-armed missiles—missiles previously banned by the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in 2019. China, which has historically relied on a small and constrained nuclear arsenal, is expanding its capabilities and deploying multiple, independently retargetable warheads on some of its ICBMs and will likely add more in the coming year.

In December 2018, Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces tested the Avangard system, which included a hypersonic glide vehicle carried on a UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 missile. (Russian Defense Ministry video via

The heightened interest that the United States and Russia have shown in hypersonic weapons, as demonstrated by a number of tests in 2020, is deeply worrisome. The hypersonics arms race has already led to calls for space-based interceptors to destroy them in flight. This militarization of space is dangerously destabilizing and increases the risk of escalation and accidental conflict.

Several countries are developing weapons-delivery platforms that can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads, introducing greater risks of miscalculation in a crisis or conventional conflict. Some may view this ambiguity as a deterrent to war, but it is not hard to imagine how mistaking a conventionally armed cruise missile for a nuclear-armed missile could complicate decision-making in the fog of crisis or war, potentially leading to preemptive strikes. The potential to stumble into nuclear war—ever present—has grown.

Meanwhile, developments in Northeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia further add to nuclear risks.

North Korea continues to develop its missile and nuclear programs. It revealed a new and larger long-range missile (Hwasong-16) in October 2020 at a military parade, but in the absence of flight testing, it’s not clear whether the new missile will add major capabilities to North Korea’s arsenal. There were no high level meetings between North Korea and the United States in 2020, leaving the future of US negotiations with North Korea in doubt.

The Hwasong-16 in the parade of the 75th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea in October 2020. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Hwasong-16 in the parade of the 75th anniversary of the Worker’s Party of Korea in October 2020. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
South Asia remains a potential nuclear hot spot, as both India and Pakistan continue to enlarge their arsenals and increase the sophistication and ranges of their weapons, with Indian ballistic missiles now able to reach Chinese targets. The relatively recent movement of nuclear competition among these countries to sea-based platforms, including submarines, raises the risk—already high—that conventional skirmishes could escalate to the nuclear level.

The continued effort by Iran to enhance its nuclear capabilities is another serious concern. But a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape is the Biden administration’s stated desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In response to the 2018 US withdrawal, Iran deliberately walked back its commitments under the agreement. Stockpiles of low-enriched uranium have increased, enrichment levels have risen, and new, improved centrifuges have been installed. These actions have reduced the amount of time it would take Iran to put together a nuclear weapon from one year to several months. At the same time, Iran continues to comply with many of the agreement’s requirements, and many of the actions it has taken can easily be reversed. However, Iran’s willingness to remain in the agreement is not a given.

To keep nuclear modernization programs from becoming a full-scale nuclear arms race, it will be essential that New START, a treaty that limits US and Russian strategic weapon deployments, be extended for five more years, buying time for a follow-on agreement to be considered, negotiated, and put into force. Russian President Vladimir Putin and new US President Joe Biden agreed to do that on January 26 and now the action is in the Duma’s hands.

Other arms control efforts—including the nuclear test ban treaty and negotiations to stop producing fissile materials for weapons—have unraveled or are stalled. Previous cooperation on fissile material control and nuclear proliferation among the United States, Russia, and China has lapsed, and there are no serious efforts aimed at limiting risky developments in cyberweapons, space weapons, missile defenses, and hypersonic missiles.

The tenth review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was postponed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rescheduled for this year, the review conference will provide an opportunity for nuclear weapons countries to demonstrate the practical steps they have taken or will commit to take to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons use and scale back their reliance on nuclear weapons.

Just a few days ago, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force after 50 countries completed ratification. This treaty was developed by countries that do not have nuclear weapons, with the intention of bringing pressure on the nuclear weapons states to move more forcefully toward nuclear disarmament. The treaty brings much-needed attention to the risks posed by nuclear weapons, especially the enormous humanitarian impacts of the use of nuclear weapons. We hope that the treaty will lead to concrete actions by all states to address the challenges of disarmament and proliferation, including collective security and verification. We call on all states to collaborate and compromise to achieve real disarmament results.

Climate change action after the pandemic

Last year was to have marked a climate change milestone: The parties to the Paris Agreement were expected to increase their pledges to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are disrupting Earth’s climate. The initial pledges made in 2015 to reduce emissions over this decade were markedly inadequate and meant only to begin an iterative process towards the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, relative to pre-industrial levels. Countries had been expected to raise their pledges at the 2020 meeting, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting was postponed until this year.

The delay may help. Few countries have been paying much attention to climate action during the pandemic. In 2020, countries whose emissions amounted to barely one-quarter of the global total had submitted improved emissions pledges, and countries responsible for another quarter of global emissions—including Australia, Japan, the United States, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and New Zealand—simply announced pledges that were effectively identical to or even weaker than their existing commitments. Although the United States formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement late last year, the new administration has begun the process of rejoining and expressed its intention to submit an improved pledge and to provide additional financial support for climate actions in poor countries. As the pandemic recedes, more countries may step up their pledges over the course of the coming year.

As the COVID-19 pandemic deepened in the early months of 2020, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by an estimated 17 percent compared to the previous year’s. Emissions have largely bounced back, however, as the world’s fossil fuel-dependent economies have begun to recover, and the year’s total emissions were estimated at only four-to-seven percent lower than last year’s. Of course, cutting emissions temporarily via disease-induced economic recession is neither desirable nor sustainable. And, as with other economic crises, further recovery will raise energy demand and thus emissions—unless we take deliberate policy steps to reduce fossil-fuel use and accelerate the adoption of alternatives.

Fortunately, renewable energy has been resilient in the turbulent pandemic energy environment. Renewable deployment has slowed, but by less than other sources, and investment remains high. In the US, coal is projected to provide less electricity than renewables for the first time ever, owing to a decline in electricity demand and coal’s inability to compete given the low price of natural gas and near-zero operating costs of renewables. Globally, demand for fossil-based power has declined, while demand for renewable power has risen.

These developments need to be sustained into the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, but are not nearly enough to halt warming. Global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have hit a record high, and 2020 was essentially tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. Until global carbon dioxide emissions are reduced nearly to zero, the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to mount, and the world will continue to warm. The climate is still heading in the wrong direction.

In 2020, the impacts of continuing climate change were underscored in extreme and damaging ways. Portions of North America and Australia suffered massive wildfires, and a clear signal of human-caused climate change was evident in the frequency of powerful tropical cyclones and the heavier rainfall they produced. Meanwhile, evidence mounted that sea level rise is accelerating, and the effects of the oceans growing warmer and more acidic because of carbon dioxide absorption were clear in many marine ecosystems, as was most dramatically illustrated by the ongoing destruction of coral reefs.

First, to what extent will economic stimulus spending aimed at ending the coronavirus economic slowdown be directed toward efficient green infrastructure and low-carbon industries? Such support will inevitably compete with aid requests from fossil fuel companies and other carbon-intensive industries that are also facing pandemic-related pressures

In the COVID-19 case, a lot of “brown” (fossil-based) stimulus is in the works. The trillions of dollars in stimulus programs that countries have launched are not particularly green. In aggregate, the G20 countries had committed approximately $240 billion to stimulus spending that supports fossil fuel energy by the end of 2020, versus $160 billion for clean energy. Likewise, the support packages for developing countries from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund do not favor low-carbon investments. And while China has made strong commitments to the decarbonization of its domestic economy, its Belt and Road Initiative appears poised to fill the niche increasingly being abandoned by developed country finance sectors, pouring investment into fossil-fuel infrastructure around the world.

At present, national plans for fossil fuel development and production are anything but encouraging; they project global growth in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use of roughly two percent per year over this coming critical decade, whereas emissions would need to decline precipitously if the temperature commitments of the Paris Agreement were to be met. If these plans are indeed pursued, fossil fuel production in 2030 would be around 50 percent higher than is consistent with meeting even the least ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement.

A second question: How will the pandemic affect the ability of the international political system to manage global climate change? Like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem that calls for a global solution. How successfully the leaders of the world’s nations coordinate their responses to the pandemic affects (or, will affect) their faith and commitment to multilateralism generally. They could become more confident in the value of effective global cooperation and robust international institutions, or they could emerge more mistrustful of multilateralism and discard their remaining commitments to invest in already declining and over-stretched institutions of global cooperation. A positive experience could lead to effective collaborations addressing climate change, the threat of nuclear war, and global challenges yet to emerge.


We set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been—because the existential risks confronting humanity today call for quick and comprehensive action across the 21st century’s complex threat spectrum. Here are some practical steps that world leaders can and should initiate in 2021 to protect humanity from major global threats that have the potential to end civilization:

The US and Russian presidents should, upon extension of New START, launch follow-on talks for more ambitious and comprehensive limits of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
Now that the United States has announced it will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, it should accelerate its commitment to decarbonization and put policies in place that make the attainment of the commitment feasible.


Russia can rejoin the NATO-Russia Council and open serious discussions on risk reduction and on avoiding escalation dangers.
North Korea can agree to codify and allow verification of its moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile tests.
Iran and the United States can jointly return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and Iran can agree to new, broader talks about Middle East security and constraints on its missile and other military activities.
The United States and Russia can renew cooperation on fissile material and nuclear security to make sure that terrorists cannot acquire the means to build a nuclear weapon.
All nations can commit to stronger decarbonization goals under the Paris Agreement and implement policies directed toward the realization of these goals. Those policies should address not merely long-term goals but near-term emission reductions and investments in longer-term structural changes. Meanwhile, the world’s wealthier countries should enhance their commitments under the Paris Agreement to provide financial support and technology cooperation required by developing countries to undertake strong climate action.

The new US administration can fill leadership positions for science-based agencies on the basis of scientific expertise and credentials; prohibit interference with the production or dissemination of executive branch scientific reports; use the best possible science to inform policy considerations; allow government scientists to engage with the public about their work; and provide funding to restore and strengthen international scientific cooperation.
Governments, major communications technology firms, academic experts, and responsible media organizations can cooperate to find practical and ethical ways to combat internet-enabled misinformation and disinformation.

Having now killed more than two million human beings, COVID-19 is an unmistakable global wake-up call. The message is simple and chilling: Next time could be far worse. Given the pandemic experience, no one can reasonably say he or she was not warned. It remains 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. It is time for all to take the actions needed to—quite literally—save the world.
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