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The people behind the Doomsday Clock explain why we’re so close to midnight

The Doomsday Clock graphic from the Watchmen series (Image: DC)
The Doomsday Clock graphic from the Watchmen series (Image: DC)

In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders to shed some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

In 1947, the Doomsday Clock appeared for the first time, with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. A strikingly effective graphic of data and symbolism, the clock was created by Hyde Park’s Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists to indicate the likelihood of a global catastrophe. The Bulletin itself was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work” after developing the world’s first nuclear weapons during World War II. When the Bulletin changed from a newsletter to a magazine in 1947, that premiere Doomsday Clock graced its cover.

In the 70 years since, the clock has swung back and forth as it appears on every cover of the Bulletin, usually after important developments related to the world’s nuclear arsenal, like the development of the hydrogen bomb (two minutes to midnight in 1953) to progressive arms agreements (17 minutes to midnight after post-Cold War nuclear reductions). The clock has also showed up in everything from rock music (Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes To Midnight”) to playing a pivotal visual role in DC’s seminal Watchmen series.

More recently, the Doomsday Clock has taken into account not only nuclear weapons but the similarly dire situation of climate change. It was the latter that caused the clock to move in 2015 from five minutes to midnight to three. On January 26, the inauguration of the unstable and volatile Donald J. Trump led the clock to be moved to two-and-a-half-minutes to midnight, the first time the clock has been moved in half-minute increments, and its closest position to Doomsday since 1953.

Members of the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists announce the updated Doomsday Clock in Washington, D.C. (Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

To find out more about this conceivably civilization-ending situation, and what the average citizen can do to stop it, The A.V. Club talked with Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, for a conversation that was somehow simultaneously comforting and terrifying. The Bulletin will feature more about the clock in its upcoming exhibition, Turn Back The Clock, which opens at Chicago’s Museum Of Science And Industry on May 25.

Graphic depicting the Doomsday Clock’s timetable (Image: Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists)

The A.V. Club: What’s the number one thing that could happen to turn the clock back right now? Impeachment?

Rachel Bronson: [Laughs.] It depends if it’s on climate issues, on nuclear issues, or issues more generally. Let me just walk through those. So first of all, just public engagement and awareness and concern is something that politicians pay attention to. So the public’s response to the moving of the clock is increasing. Every year it’s been getting bigger, but this year was through the roof. We had over a million and a half people watching the event on CNN’s livestream alone. So that really suggests that the public is concerned.

More specifically, in small, everyday things, there’s a few things you can do. The president said he’s going to tear up the Iran deal. Many of us at the Bulletin thought that Iran deal was probably one of the better deals, also well designed. So, very specifically, you can ask your elected officials where they stand on the Iran deal and if they don’t support it, why.

The second thing you can ask about is modernization. We are about to embark on a trillion-dollars-over-30-years investment in our nuclear arsenal. Most experts think some of that needs to happen, and we want to make sure our arsenals are safe and secure and modern. At the same time, the kinds of investments that are going in across the world, including the United States, actually suggest that we are building a whole post-Cold War nuclear arsenal. And is that really where we want to be spending a trillion dollars on that over the next 30 years when our budgets are so constrained elsewhere? So I would ask our public servants about it.

On climate, ask your representatives what they’re doing on climate—not if they support this or that, but specifically, what are they doing to slow the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere and leaving for our children? Ask them point-blank about that. Everyone says they’re concerned about it, but when our elected officials come up, we ask them—very understandably—about other things. These are happening now that are true public issues that our public officials can influence the outcomes on.

Very, very immediately, what we know in just the last few days is that Vladimir Putin called President Trump to talk about extending about the New Start agreement. It was put in place in 2010—it was signed between Obama and Medvedev to bring down nuclear arsensals to 1,500 nuclear weapons per country. A lot of experts think we could go down to a thousand, and take another 500 out. And [Trump] was asked if he wanted to extend it beyond its expiration date of 2018, and he said no.

AVC: Let me get this straight: Putin offered to extend our nuclear arms agreement and Trump turned him down?

RB: Yes. That’s all just in last few days. It’s all happening so fast. It’s just unbelievable.

So those are just some of the things where it certainly feels out of our hands, but I think we can ask our public servants when they come back to talk to us: What are you telling the president? What are you telling your friends on the House Arms Committee? What are you telling your friends on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Is it okay that the U.S. really doesn’t sign up for extended arms control agreements that have been signed and are being acted upon now?

There are a lot of decisions like that that are being made right now, that we can hold our public officials’ feet to the fire. And if we were able to do that, those are some thing we can do to move the clock back.

AVC: What do you think about the theory that technology is moving in a green direction anyway, because it makes sense financially and environmentally? So if other countries are headed toward clean energy and wind and solar power, even if the U.S. is behind, will that help the problem take care of itself?

RB: I don’t think anyone looking at this really seriously feels that this will take care of itself. So what you’re saying is that other countries are moving in the right direction, and economically, states and cities are moving. The truth of the matter is that all that is important, and all that is happening, because it makes a lot of sense. And the United States seems to be one of the few countries where we’re questioning whether or not to make a national commitment to reducing the effects of climate change. And when the U.S. opts out of a leadership position, we cede that over to other countries. But we are the biggest and one of the greatest users of energy, and we have the ability to set the agenda for other countries—that’s the power of the United States. And when we opt out, nothing really happens.

AVC: Serious question: How do you get up in the morning? I don’t know half of what you’re faced with everyday and like many people, I’m having a hard time getting through the day right now.

RB: I think what is motivating is that a lot of people are taking this very seriously and trying to learn as much as they can. That is motivating. We can help. That’s what we wait for. We try to urge the public that this is seriously important and dangerous, that as the individuals, we can make a difference. The only time when things have happened has been through grassroots support. So the fact that signups to our newsletter are through the roof, traffic to our website is through the roof, half of those who come to our website are under 35 years old—that is very motivating.

I think the second thing is that the clock has moved between two and 17 minutes to midnight, and the difference between two and 17 are the decisions that people make. So I do see a connection between awareness and action. It’s more dangerous to me when we’re about to invest a trillion dollars and no one seems to care. And that was under the Obama administration.

So right now, what it feels like is that maybe these weapons aren’t as controlled as we thought they were, and we have to reinvest on thinking about them and figure about how we can reduce the numbers beyond where they are. Maybe there are safeguards we can put in place, so that not one person is in charge of ordering a nuclear strike. So it actually feels like a moment where the public is re-engaging on these issues. It’s not happy, but it’s motivating.

Part of the reason this upcoming exhibit is so important to us is that the Museum Of Science And Industry gets hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, so there’s really a chance to reach the next generation. And we’re really trying to respond to the massive interest that we’ve gotten, to provide resources to what is going on, and also to help spur engagement. We’re also supporting the March For Science on April 22—the advance in science has made America great, wealthy, innovative, and powerful.

AVC: What I don’t get, and I’m sure you don’t either, when we’ve been spending so much time and energy over the last few decades reducing the number of nuclear weapons—what the possible impetus could be for someone to want to increase that arsenal again?

RB: It is surprising. I certainly didn’t expect that we would be here. If we follow the president’s words and try to apply some logic to them, there is a disdain for anything decided upon during the Obama administration, like the arms agreement and the Iran deal. Many administrations have that. This one seems particularly hardened that whatever happened in the prior administration has to be terrible. And they kind of campaigned on that.

There’s a disregard for international agreements. There’s a sense that we’re getting screwed by having a nuclear umbrella and that we might be better off by having other countries control their own.

AVC: Just to be clear, the nuclear umbrella is where we protect other countries under our arsenal, so they don’t have to have nukes because we do?

RB: Yeah, it really is as simple as that. Japan knows it doesn’t need nuclear weapons because if anyone threatens to use nuclear weapons on them, they’re under the nuclear umbrella. They can count on the United States to defend them, all the way through the chain of command. NATO, exact same thing. NATO knows that at the end of an escalation ladder is the U.S. nuclear weapons. So these countries have been under what’s called a nuclear umbrella so they don’t have to build their own.

The president, when campaigning, suggested that Japan and South Korea should have nuclear weapons, to let them defend themselves. So let them deal with the North Koreans, so we don’t need to get involved.

AVC: Oh my god.

RB: The sense that maybe it’s better for South Korea and Japan to have their own nuclear weapons, which of course made many arms security experts really nervous. Because that’s the last thing we want, is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We want to reduce the number of nuclear weapons because they are so dangerous.

AVC: Let’s go back to the relatively calmer topic of climate change. The stuff we all do in our householdslike if we’re still recycling, and turning off light switchesis that helping the big picture at all?

RB: It is helping the big picture, and there is some optimism, a little bit, among climate-change experts that the rising generation just gets it. They were kind of born with concern over climate change—they’re seeing weather changing. The question is whether we can wait for them to come into the positions of power to make the kind of decision we need to be made. For climate experts, there’s the sense that over time, this climate change denial will just fall away because it doesn’t have support, and this is kind of the last gasp. But the concern comes into the fact because when carbon gets into the atmosphere, it can stay for 10,000 years, so we really are at a point now, given the amount that we’re pumping into the atmosphere—the changes have to happen now. And we’re obviously already seeing some of the effects of it.

So things like recycling: absolutely. The U.S. consumes per person much less now than it did in the ’70s. Because of all these changes, because of how efficient our cars and our refrigerators are and our light bulbs are, they really do add up to make a difference. But more importantly is that the recycling has helped the mindset that leads to a significant part of the population supporting these efforts, believe that climate change is real, and all of that. Now we just need our government to represent that.

AVC: What about the argument that we’re past the point? Every once in a while you see a Facebook post from some scientist who says it’s over, so just hug your loved ones, and have a good time until the world ends. We’re not there yet?

RB: We’re not there yet, but a big part of our moving the clock from five minutes to three minutes to midnight in 2015 was climate, and our climate scientists saying we have to act now. So there is concern that an administration that sets us back four to eight years is very, very troubling. Because we need progress now, we need research, we need new ideas, we need new agreements, we need to move our economy off of fossil fuels. If we go back to a period of just doing much more of the same, it’s not that far away where that our children will be dealing with more difficult outcomes than if we got serious now.

The problem is that the fight should be about what policies best mitigate climate change given economic realities. That should be the debate, so when you have an idea like a carbon tax, you can have very different ideas. But you can’t even have a debate about what policies to pursue if the starting place for some officials like Scott Pruitt [the new head of the EPA and a climate-change denier] is that “Yeeeahhhh, climate change is happening, but we can deal with it in the future, it’s cyclical.” You can’t even have that conversation.

AVC: It most be interesting to you at the Bulletin to see how the Doomsday Clock so often plays into popular culture.

RB: It was just in Madam Secretary. A year ago they did an episode called “On The Click.” So it continues to be used in popular culture. It was a great episode!

AVC: Why did you only move it 30 seconds this time?

RB: What we called out in particular was loose talk around nuclear weapons and a disregard of expertise. We usually move it in increments of full minutes and usually based on actions—arms control agreements or disarmament efforts. This was in response to careless language and a lack of appreciation for expertise, and what that means in a complicated environment where accidents and misperceptions can be so dangerous. So this was to convey the importance of the danger, but also that actions speak louder than words.