Editor’s Note: Ban Ki-Moon is former United Nations secretary-general. Mary Robinson served as both Irish president and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Jerry Brown was governor of California from 1975-83 and 2011-19 and is now executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. William J. Perry was US secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and is now chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ban Ki-Moon and Mary Robinson are members of The Elders, an international nongovernmental organization of elder statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
We are in humanity’s moment of greatest peril.
On Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which takes stock of the threats posed by nuclear war and climate change each year, moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight. We are now measuring how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been since the clock was created in 1947.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by those who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and now includes 13 Nobel Laureates on the board, issued a statement on Thursday that read, “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”
Together, we have served as United Nations secretary-general, president of Ireland, governor of California, and US Secretary of Defense and we remain active today on issues of global concern. That is why we are heeding the call of the Bulletin by taking the step of urging fellow world leaders to act before matters spin further out of control.
We share a common concern over the failure of the multilateral system to address the existential threats we face. From the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, to the deadlock at nuclear disarmament talks and division at the UN Security Council – our mechanisms for collaboration are being undermined when we need them the most.
On the nuclear threat, we’ve seen unprecedented brinksmanship over the past 12 months by half a dozen nations, the termination of major arms control agreements, a dizzying proliferation of nuclear weapons, and an unsettling amount of loose talk about the mistaken idea that limited nuclear warfare is somehow possible or “winnable.”
The danger we face cannot be overstated.
Given the current state of global affairs, it is hard to imagine that in the early 1990s, the Doomsday Clock was moved as far away from midnight as 17 minutes. But there are concrete steps we can take today to turn back the clock and make the world safer. We appeal directly to President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to begin negotiating the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – the only remaining bilateral agreement between these two nuclear super powers – without delay.
It would be a crippling blow to the world if New START is not extended beyond 2021, when it is set to expire. This would not only eliminate remaining constraints on deployed nuclear arsenals, but also remove the monitoring and inspection capabilities which have provided both sides with increased transparency regarding nuclear capability.
The climate change crisis is the other existential threat facing humanity. While it has sparked encouraging activism and action from young people, universities, businesses, cities and states, national governments continue to fall short. The 60 or so countries that have committed to reducing their net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 account for just 11% of global emissions. We are left to wonder what it will take to spur the needed action when nearly every person on the planet has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the ravages of extreme weather, flooding, drought, and wildfires.
Making matters worse, cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns are sowing distrust in science, institutions and nations. They feed into the fear that drives the threat of nuclear war and the denialism that impedes action on the climate crisis.
A nuclear war that could end civilization – whether it is started intentionally or accidentally – is a real possibility. Meanwhile, climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably underway. And for a variety of reasons (including cyber-enabled disinformation), democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.
We are sometimes asked how the Doomsday Clock can be so close to midnight so long after the end of the Cold War. The answer is that we face a new kind of nuclear peril, a new existential threat in the climate crisis, and an information environment so corrupted that it is almost impossible for concerned governments and citizens to mobilize the consensus for necessary action.
We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error. We ask world leaders to join us in 2020 as we work to pull humanity back from the brink without any further delay. The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight, in what is arguably the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to come together – to unite and to act.