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The Doomsday Clock is still two minutes to midnight

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‘We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity’

Video: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Doomsday Clock will stay at two minutes to midnight, the same time as it was last year and the closest it’s been to the hour standing in for the apocalypse. A nuclear arms race, climate change, and the rampant and willful denial of the direness of these circumstances continue to threaten our existence. But a panel of experts doesn’t think the threat has changed enough since last year to merit shifting the minute hand closer to humanity’s doom.

The clock is a gimmick, a symbolic threat assessment made by a panel of experts at the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. According to them, the clock is designed to warn people “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” with midnight standing in for the point of no return. Last year, North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal, Donald Trump’s erratic behavior, and tensions with other nuclear powers advanced the minute hand by 30 seconds. It’s the same time the clock reached in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union had tested thermonuclear bombs, the most powerful weapons humankind had created.

This year, the panel cited the start of a new nuclear arms race and a failure to address the ongoing threat of climate change when it elected to keep the minute hand steady at two minutes to midnight. “The fact that the Doomsday Clock hands did not change is bad news indeed,” Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin science and security board and a professor at the University of Chicago, said in the press briefing. The existential threats of nuclear war and climate change are becoming normalized, he said, and widespread lies and propaganda are making it harder than ever to fight them.

Lies and propaganda have always been around, Herb Lin, a senior researcher at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a member of the Bulletin’s board, said during the press briefing. But Lin said the internet has allowed more misinformation to spread faster than ever before in what he called cyber-enabled information warfare. “The truth of a statement is tested by an examination of reality, not how many people believe in it,” he said. “It’s a terrible world in which rage and fantasy replace logic and truth.”

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown also spoke at the announcement, and he compared the world to the passengers on the Titanic who were merrily dining while the iceberg approached. “We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity,” Brown said.

Brown is less worried about an all-out nuclear war than he is about an error or mistake that could launch nuclear missiles around the world. There have certainly been close calls in the past, when brinkmanship combined with war games or glitches almost lead to a nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War. “The business of everyday politics blinds people to the risks,” he said.

That’s what the Doomsday Clock is for. Sure, it’s gimmicky. Sure, it oversimplifies a complex calculation about threats to humanity. No, it doesn’t signify a meaningful deadline for addressing those threats. It’s just a visual representation of what a group of experts think. And that’s why the clock is helpful, nuclear anthropologist Martin Pfeiffer told The Verge last year: it’s a clear, visceral symbol that time is limited. “The Doomsday Clock may not be perfect but it remains a compelling and poignant reminder that we’re fucked if we don’t take action and now,” he said today in a direct message on Twitter.

It’s a sentiment that Jerry Brown echoed in the press briefing today: “It’s late. It’s getting later. And we’ve got to wake people up.”