The doomsday clock strikes closer due to climate change



Recently, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the doomsday clock at 3 minutes to midnight, reflecting the severity of threats facing the planet. The decision was justified on the grounds of two main issues: nuclear weapons and the environment.

In 1952, the clock was set to 2 minutes to midnight, reflecting the breakdown in dialogue between the US and USSR. At this time, nuclear weapons played a prominent role within the creation of the doomsday clock and its countdown to midnight in 1957, reflecting the severity of the threat during the Cold War.

In recent years, academics have sought to broaden understandings of security away from pure military calculations to include questions about identity, economics and the environment. This broadening of questions about security is also reflected in the calculations for the doomsday clock.

A number of concerns about nuclear weapons remain, predominantly located in questions about proliferation, to – and from – both state and non-state actors.

In an attempt to reduce proliferation concerns at the heart of the Cold War, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was established in 1967, designed to restrict the number of states that possessed a nuclear weapon.

At this point, the treaty allowed only those states who had tested a nuclear weapon prior to the 1st January that year – coincidentally the permanent 5 members of the United Nations Security Council.  Since then, only 4 other states have achieved nuclear weapon status, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, although the latter vigorously deny this. When placed within the context of the 195 sovereign states,  such controls suggest that the NPT has been a success.

In calculating the time of the doomsday clock, the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was heralded as a major success in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Yet despite this, the 5 nuclear weapon states are yet to take seriously Article VI of the treaty, aimed at total disarmament. Such a view of success is in stark contrast to the continued existence of an estimated 15,700 nuclear warheads.

Including a broader range of factors in calculations to set the doomsday clock provides a more accurate depiction of the nature of the threat facing the world today, allowing for an analysis of environmental factors. The severity of the consequences of environmental challenges is undeniable, according the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, resulting in a “3- to 34-inch rise in sea level, leading to more coastal erosion, increased flooding during storms, and, in some regions”. This impact will be global, hitting major cities such as London and New York and “compelling major shifts in human settlement patterns”.

In recent times, questions about existing within the anthropocene have begun to dominate a number of disciplines ranging from geology to politics and questions about security and sovereignty within the context of debates over national interest and collective responsibility.

In December 2015, world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss tackling the problem. In the agreement, article 2(1) stresses the need to have a stronger collective response:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Clearly, there are serious issues within this statement, yet vagueness and interpretation are important parts of diplomacy. But heralding the talks as a success may be misleading. Indeed, the agreement is yet to be implemented and for many the agreement is too little too late as many in India, Bangladesh and a range of states across the Middle East and in Africa are facing existential challenges from environmental change. This has impacted in a range of ways including famine, flooding, displacement and conflict, both within and between states.

A number of scholars have argued that environmental factors played an important role in the build up to Syrian civil war, which feeds into arguments that securing access to natural resources has become an increasingly prominent factor within policy decisions.

Those displaced by environmental factors often find it increasingly difficult to meet their basic needs. Indeed, neighbouring states often face similar pressures and typically lack the necessary infrastructure or governance systems to adequately deal providing welfare for a mass influx of people.

While the doomsday clock suggests that there are three minutes until midnight, for those affected by environmental change, midnight seems much closer.  What appears clear is that although nuclear concerns remain, the much bigger challenge stems from environmental change, both directly and indirectly.


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