On January 23, 2020, former president Mary Robinson and former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to the symbolic hour of global destruction.
Yesterday, the clock stood still, serving as a warning that the future of humanity remains in peril, but, equally, that there are grounds for hope.
Many people in Ireland may not have heard of the Doomsday Clock but, for the past 75 years, it has served as an important indicator of global security and safety. It was first unveiled in 1947 by scientists alarmed at the development of atomic weapons. It was set then at seven minutes to midnight and, at its most optimistic setting, in 1991, the clock showed 17 minutes to midnight, reflecting the end of the Cold War.
Last year, the clock moved closer to midnight than at any point since its creation. To underscore the urgency, the time on the clock is now expressed in seconds, rather than minutes.
The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as its rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, has tested the resolve of the international community to work together. Also, the deadlock in nuclear disarmament talks, and division at the UN Security Council, have undermined international mechanisms when we need them most.
There are signs, however, that global consensus is re-emerging. US president Joe Biden has promised a return to the Paris Agreement as part of new foreign policy measures. He has also indicated a willingness to re-engage with Iran on limiting its nuclear programme.
In 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and since then, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its uranium enrichment way beyond what the agreement permits. Recently, it has even begun enriching uranium to 20%, almost weapons-grade. That is a clear violation of the agreement and one that Biden has promised to address in order to force Iran back to full compliance.
There are other signs that allow for optimism, too. On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Biden agreed to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) nuclear nonproliferation pact, which was due to expire next month.
However, nuclear proliferation is not the only danger humanity faces. A lack of global leadership has contributed to the deaths of almost 2m people through Covid-19. Contrast that with the ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014, when the UN and other international agencies prevented the outbreak from spreading. Biden’s decision that the US remains a member of the World Health Organization could galvanise international efforts to reduce biological risks of all kinds.
Covid-19 could serve as a wake-up call to world leaders that only by working together can the greater threats posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and climate change be lessened. If that happens, there is every chance the Doomsday Clock will tick backwards once again.