Tuesday, 24 January 2023 05:36

Doomsday Clock co-chair: Risk of escalation to nuclear war 'is real'

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How long do we have before humanity destroys itself? We will soon find out, as scientists from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are set to unveil the 2023 Doomsday Clock on Tuesday (today).

The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of how close mankind is to self-annihilation, where midnight represents the eruption of a total global catastrophe. The clock is updated every year by members of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board to reflect whether the events of the past 12 months have pushed humanity closer or further away from destruction.

Since 2020, the Doomsday Clock has sat at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been. But there is speculation that Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin's persistent threats of nuclear war over the past year, may have pushed us even closer to midnight.

What to Expect From This Year's Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock was last set on January 20, 2022, shortly before Putin's invasion of Ukraine. "This year, the war in Ukraine was front and center in our deliberations," Sharon Squassoni, co-chair of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, told Newsweek.

"The risk of escalation from a conventional war to use of nuclear weapons is real. No one knows if Putin sees military or strategic advantages in actual use of nuclear weapons, as opposed to threatening to use them for coercive purposes," Squassoni said.

Tuesday's announcement will be the first update since the invasion. "The war in Ukraine and Putin's repeated reference or allusions to nuclear weapons have brought home for many that we are just one poor decision, accident, misjudgment or reckless leader away from disaster," said Tara Drozdenko, director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is not involved in the setting of the clock.

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine and an active war on NATO's border increase the risk of a nuclear disaster," Drozdenko said.

While Putin's repeated nuclear threats have certainly grabbed the most headlines, other countries have continued to build and update their nuclear arsenals. "The United States is currently on track to spend over $1 trillion over 30 years replacing every weapon in the nuclear arsenal," Drozdenko said. "U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is actually contributing to a renewed nuclear arms race.... Meanwhile, arms control efforts have stalled."

In November 2022, the U.S. and Russia were to meet to discuss details of resuming nuclear weapons inspections, as laid out in the New START treaty, which had been paused because of pandemic travel restrictions. However, on the eve of the event, the Russian government postponed the meeting until further notice.

"Each year, we consider how well we are able to control the technology we have deployed and mitigate its consequences, both relative to the previous year and roughly in historical context," Squassoni said.

She continued: "Nuclear weapons have the power to quickly extinguish human life. Climate change has a much longer fuse for us. We also assess developments in the areas of biosecurity and a range of disruptive technologies that may factor into existential risk."

The New START nuclear arms treaty is the last remaining arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia and is set to expire in 2026. "As long as countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons as the basis for their security policies, we remain at risk," Drozdenko said.

Against this backdrop, this year had been different for the members of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, she said. "We met more frequently and began discussions of the implications of the war in Ukraine very early after it began. Those implications are far-ranging, from specific impacts on energy investments that affect climate change and U.S.-Russian inspections under the New START Treaty to more general effects on how countries collaborate on multilateral issues.

"A key concern is whether the so-called nuclear order will survive—the system of treaties and assurances, imperfect as they are, that keeps states from developing nuclear weapons and ultimately promises the elimination of all nuclear weapons," Drozdenko said.

How Can We Turn Back the Clock?

Nuclear warfare is not the only hand-setting factor for the Doomsday Clock that the Bulletin considers. Squassoni said there had been some positive progress in the last year.

"We noted small gains in the climate area—for example, agreeing at the Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations [in Egypt] to set up a fund to aid poor and vulnerable countries suffering from climate impacts and increased investment in renewables—and small successes in the battle against disinformation, cyberattacks and space resilience," she said.

In contrast to climate change and underground cyberthreats, nuclear warfare is a factor that can be more easily controlled.

"To reduce nuclear risk, the United States and Russia need to resume talking to one another under the auspices of New START and with an eye to negotiating a follow-on to that treaty," Drozdenko said. "Competition between the United States and China is [also] increasing feelings of insecurity in Northeast Asia and precipitating a new nuclear arms race. We need policies and dialogue that aims to slow down and end that brewing arms race."

Drozdenko detailed steps that the United States can take to reduce these tensions:

  1. End the president's sole, unchecked authority to start a nuclear war and call on other countries to follow suit.
  2. Issue a policy that the United States will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. This will reduce the risk of a nuclear war due to miscalculation or misunderstanding
  3. Cancel unnecessary and unwanted new nuclear weapons and reduce spending on nuclear weapons.

Sean Meyer, co-founder and adviser for the Back from the Brink Coalition, a grassroots campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, said that individuals can make a difference.

"Across the globe and here in the United States, people and communities are speaking out and demanding that the United States, Russia and all of the nuclear weapons states take action to prevent nuclear war and achieve a world free of nuclear weapons," Meyer said.

Drozdenko said, "We can let our elected officials know we are worried and that we want to see concrete action to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons. We can hold our government accountable to create policies that keep us safe by reducing the risk of nuclear war, and we can make clear that we don't want to see our tax dollars wasted on more nuclear weapons.

"As long as countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons as the basis for their security policies, we remain at risk," she said.

The 2023 Doomsday Clock will be displayed on Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET. You can watch the announcement live on the Bulletin's website or its Facebook page.