As we begin our journey into the third decade of the 21st century, the Doomsday Clock strikes 100 seconds to midnight, the closest in history, thus telling us that we are ever closer to the brink of annihilation than ever before.
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic design created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to warn humanity of the impending dangers of nuclear weapons, climate change and new, disruptive technologies. Since 2018, the Clock has been pointing at 2 minutes to midnight, the closest ever to doomsday since 1953. The advent of nuclear weapons gave mankind the monstrous ability to destroy itself multiple times over, and the Doomsday Clock continues to remind us about our self-destroying power every single year.
We might not, however, be so close to destruction. Indeed, this clock is not a precise indicator of where we stand today, but rather a call to action from leaders and citizens alike. How did we get so close to doomsday anyway?
The Convergence of Three Catastrophes
The world is currently witnessing three key events which culminate together to set the stage for one fearsome world.
The first being what scholars and practitioners of international security as the “death of arms control.” The past two years have been extremely unique and disturbing, a period where we have witnessed a steady demise of historic arms control agreements, which were signed to ensure stability and reduce the likeliness of war and nuclear proliferation.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran deal. Signed under the Obama administration in 2015, it capped Iran’s nuclear program, thus hindering its ability to develop nuclear weapons. In 2018, President Donald Trump announced the formal withdrawal from the Iran deal. Just over a year later, Iran said that it will start enriching uranium above the permitted limits, thus leading to the unfortunate end to the agreement. In parallel, the US also withdrew from the historic Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1983. This treaty between the US and the Soviet Union, banned a complete set of ground-launched missiles with a range between 3,000 km to 5,500 km. The treaty met its end when the US accused Russia of testing a treaty-violating cruise missile, known as the 9M729. Failure to break ground with the Russians, the US withdrew from the treaty, with little effort being made to get the Russians into compliance.
At the same time, the future of the New START (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), signed between the US and Russia, which caps both countries’ nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads on both sides, will come to end in 2021. Though a provision exists to extend the treaty till 2027, no indications have been given to state that the treaty will be extended. With no solution to instill confidence in bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements, a new window of states to enter into an arms race, and therefore, threatening global security.
The second key event we witness is the development of new disrupting technologies both in the civilian as well as the defence sector. Advancements in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new weapon-systems like hypersonic weapons have destabilising effects on the peaceful global order. This is because countries might perceive that acquiring these emerging technologies will give them a competitive advantage — both economically and militarily — against adversaries, therefore, taking away attention from more important issues such as global income disparities and climate change.
In this aspect, climate change is the third and most important event that contributes to the calculus of the Doomsday Clock. Failing to cap global emissions will create enormous economic and social hurdles in the coming years. Failing to cooperate at a global level will most certainly lead to increased emissions.
While the demise of nuclear arms control agreements is of primary concern, emerging technologies and climate change act as catalysts,
Is Everything Doomed?
Despite the grim picture painted above, not all is bad. The technology which could potentially lead to destruction of the Earth can also be used as a tool for damage-control. Emerging technologies could pave the way for fixing many of the global issues that we face today.
For example, countries could use AI image analysis for monitoring nuclear activity via satellites and improve arms control verification, therefore, building trust in international agreements and preventing violations.
At the same time, machine learning and AI could also help create better climate change models, while similar technology could be used to create more efficient combustion engines.
While efforts to regulate emerging technologies are yet to pick up momentum, we can most certainly expect this technology to be used for the better good.
A 100 seconds to doomsday is a clear indicator that there is much mishap in the current geopolitical and technological space. However, it is not indicative of the final outcome, as we possess the technology and the means of reversing these actions.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that the Doomsday Clock acted as a call-for-action, which primarily focused on the threat posed by nuclear weapons. An effort to modernize this Clock by clubbing together emerging technologies and climate change might indeed turn out to be counterproductive, and dilute the symbolic importance of this clock.