Sunday March 19, 2017

How close are we to the end of the world?

 January 26, 2017, Washington, DC. For the first time in the 70-year history of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the clock forward 30 seconds to two and a half minutes before midnight, citing, among other factors, "ill-considered" statements by U.S. President Donald Trump on nuclear weapons.

January 26, 2017, Washington, DC. For the first time in the 70-year history of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the clock forward 30 seconds to two and a half minutes before midnight, citing, among other factors, "ill-considered" statements by U.S. President Donald Trump on nuclear weapons. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Listen 24:02

By December 1991, the Cold War was over. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle and decommission a significant portion of their nuclear stockpiles. Almost giddy with optimism, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced it would reset the Doomsday Clock to 17 minutes before midnight … midnight meaning nuclear annihilation. 

Still perhaps a little too close for comfort, but it appeared to signal the end of the waking nuclear nightmare that had gripped the world ever since the Soviet-American arms race kicked in after the Second World War.

95b38/huch/1820/13

7th October 1953: Margaret Rowe, a clerical officer in the Home Office Civil Defence Region studying a model of London's dock area, as part of a Civil Defence exercise to determine the problems and effects of an atom bomb falling in this vital area. (Lee/Central Press/Getty Images)

Since that hopeful moment more than 25 years ago, the Doomsday Clock has ticked its way ever closer back toward midnight. In late January of this year, the Bulletin's board of directors moved the clock another 30 seconds forward to two and a half minutes before midnight. The minute hand hasn't been this close to that fateful hour since 1953.

88967166

Center for Strategic and International Studies' Proliferation Prevention Program Director Sharon Squassoni. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It isn't just the flagging momentum of nuclear disarmament that worries the keepers of the Clock. They also cite a number of other complex threats to human life … a global failure to meaningfully address climate change, powerful technologies that threaten to spiral beyond human control, rising nationalist movements around the world … and they cite the election of Donald Trump, who has mused openly about encouraging nuclear proliferation and restarting a nuclear arms race. 

Sharon Squassoni is a member of the Science and Security Board of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She's also the director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies and formerly worked for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and with the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. 

Click the button above to hear Michael's interview with Sharon Squassoni.