Editor’s note: Jerry Brown is Executive Chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and served four terms as Governor of California from 1975 to 1983 and from 2011 to 2019. Sharon Squassoni is Co-Chair of the Bulletin of the Board of Science and Safety of Atomic Scientists and Professor of research at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs Institute for International Science and Technology Policy. Daniel Holz is co-chair of the Bulletin of the Board of Science and Safety of Atomic Scientists and a professor at the University of Chicago, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. The opinions expressed in this comment are my own. See more opinions on CNN.
Today, due in no small part to the growing dangers of the reckless Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the Bulletin of the Board of Science and Safety of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than ever before. It marks the first change in three years to Clock time; it is now 90 seconds to midnight.
Never in the 76-year history of the Doomsday Clock have we come so close to a global catastrophe.
Founded by Albert Einstein and the University of Chicago scientists who developed the first atomic weapons, the Clock is a universally recognized indicator of the world’s profound vulnerability to nuclear weapons, climate change and disruptive technologies. The closer the Clock is set to midnight, the greater the existential danger.
As the war in Ukraine moves into its second year, the world is at its most dangerous moment. Tens of thousands of people, many innocent civilians, have been killed. There is no obvious solution to the conflict in sight.
This is in stark contrast to the goodwill and mutual understanding that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, when Russia joined the United States and Great Britain and solemnly declared that they would “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and “they would refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” A historic deal was made. In exchange, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, then the third largest in the world, and became a signatory to the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Russia blatantly violated its commitments in 2014 when it invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Now, it has launched a full-scale military invasion of the country, with Russian President Vladimir Putin even threatening the use of nuclear weapons. These unprecedented threats, against the backdrop of brutal and unpredictable warfare, raise the terrifying possibility of nuclear weapons being used for the first time since 1945, whether by accident, some miscalculation, or even a deliberate decision by Putin himself.
Disturbingly, Russia has taken its war even to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites, violating international protocols and risking the widespread release of radioactive materials. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure the plants have so far been rebuffed and the threat of disaster remains.
Underscoring the heightened danger, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that the world is now entering “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.” He was speaking at a UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, now undermined as a result of Russia breaking its promise to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The only remaining nuclear weapons treaty between the US and Russia, New START, is also in jeopardy. Unless the two sides resume negotiations and find a solid foundation for further arms reductions, the treaty will expire in 2026. This would eliminate current mutual inspections, end limits on nuclear deployments, and likely spur a nuclear arms race. unpredictable and unstable amid the development of increasingly advanced weapons. This will further deepen mistrust, perhaps irreversibly, and increase the likelihood of nuclear war.
While these threats are immediate and dire, there are others. Countries in both Asia and the Middle East are talking about building nuclear arsenals. Tensions are rising between the United States and China.
At the same time, the world is increasing its use of fossil fuels and emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Covid-19 is still killing large numbers of people and mutating in dangerous new ways, with future pandemics almost certain. As science advances, so do threats, both in biosecurity and disruptive technologies.
If ever there was a time for world leaders to take action to turn back the clock, it is now. Until then, it’s 90 seconds to midnight.