People's Stories Human Rights Today

View previous stories

It is still 90 seconds to midnight
by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
In 2023, Earth experienced its hottest year on record, and massive floods, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters affected millions of people around the world.
Meanwhile, rapid and worrisome developments in the life sciences and other disruptive technologies accelerated, while governments made only feeble efforts to control them.
The members of the Science and Security Board have been deeply worried about the deteriorating state of the world. That is why we set the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight in 2019 and at 100 seconds to midnight in 2022.
Last year, we expressed our heightened concern by moving the Clock to 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been—in large part because of Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Today, we once again set the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight because humanity continues to face an unprecedented level of danger. Our decision should not be taken as a sign that the international security situation has eased.
Instead, leaders and citizens around the world should take this statement as a stark warning and respond urgently, as if today were the most dangerous moment in modern history. Because it may well be.
But the world can be made safer. The Clock can move away from midnight. As we wrote last year, “In this time of unprecedented global danger, concerted action is required, and every second counts.” That is just as true today.
The many dimensions of nuclear threat
A durable end to Russia’s war in Ukraine seems distant, and the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in that conflict remains a serious possibility. In February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to “suspend” the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In March, he announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In June, Sergei Karaganov, an advisor to Putin, urged Moscow to consider launching limited nuclear strikes on Western Europe as a way to bring the war in Ukraine to a favorable conclusion. In October, Russia’s Duma voted to withdraw Moscow's ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as the US Senate continued to refuse even to debate ratification.
Nuclear spending programs in the three largest nuclear powers—China, Russia, and the United States—threaten to trigger a three-way nuclear arms race as the world’s arms control architecture collapses. Russia and China are expanding their nuclear capabilities, and pressure mounts in Washington for the United States to respond in kind.
Meanwhile, other potential nuclear crises fester. Iran continues to enrich uranium to close to weapons grade while stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency on key issues. Efforts to reinstate an Iran nuclear deal appear unlikely to succeed, and North Korea continues building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Nuclear expansion in Pakistan and India continues without pause or restraint.
And the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has the potential to escalate into a wider Middle Eastern conflict that could pose unpredictable threats, regionally and globally.
An ominous climate change outlook
The world in 2023 entered uncharted territory as it suffered its hottest year on record and global greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise. Both global and North Atlantic sea-surface temperatures broke records, and Antarctic sea ice reached its lowest daily extent since the advent of satellite data.
The world already risks exceeding a goal of the Paris climate agreement—a temperature increase of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—because of insufficient commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and insufficient implementation of commitments already made. To halt further warming, the world must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions.
The world invested a record-breaking $1.7 trillion in clean energy in 2023, and countries representing half the world’s gross domestic product pledged to triple their renewable energy capacity by 2030. Offsetting this, however, were fossil fuel investments of nearly $1 trillion.
In short, current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are grossly insufficient to avoid dangerous human and economic impacts from climate change, which disproportionately affect the poorest people in the world. Barring a marked increase in efforts, the toll of human suffering from climate disruption will inexorably mount.
Evolving biological threats
The revolution in life sciences and associated technologies continued to expand in scope last year, including, especially, the increased sophistication and efficiency of genetic engineering technologies. We highlight one issue of special concern: The convergence of emerging artificial intelligence tools and biological technologies may radically empower individuals to misuse biology.
In October, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on “safe, secure, and trustworthy AI” that calls for protection “against the risks of using AI to engineer dangerous biological materials by developing strong new standards for biological synthesis screening.” Though a useful step, the order is not legally binding.
The concern is that large language models enable individuals who otherwise lack sufficient know-how to identify, acquire, and deploy biological agents that would harm large numbers of humans, animals, plants, and other elements of the environment. Reinvigorated efforts this past year in the United States to revise and strengthen oversight of risky life science research are useful, but much more is needed.
The dangers of AI
One of the most significant technological developments in the last year involved the dramatic advance of generative artificial intelligence. The apparent sophistication of chatbots based on large language models, such as ChatGPT, led some respected experts to express concern about existential risks arising from further rapid advancements in the field. But others argue that claims about existential risk distract from the real and immediate threats that AI poses today (see, for example, “Evolving biological threats” above).
Regardless, AI is a paradigmatic disruptive technology; recent efforts at global governance of AI should be expanded.
AI has great potential to magnify disinformation and corrupt the information environment on which democracy depends. AI-enabled disinformation efforts could be a factor that prevents the world from dealing effectively with nuclear risks, pandemics, and climate change.
Military uses of AI are accelerating. Extensive use of AI is already occurring in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, simulation, and training. Of particular concern are lethal autonomous weapons, which identify and destroy targets without human intervention. Decisions to put AI in control of important physical systems—in particular, nuclear weapons—could indeed pose a direct existential threat to humanity.
Fortunately, many countries are recognizing the importance of regulating AI and are beginning to take steps to reduce the potential for harm. These initial steps include a proposed regulatory framework by the European Union, an executive order by President Biden, an international declaration to address AI risks, and the formation of a new UN advisory body.
But these are only tiny steps; much more must be done to institute effective rules and norms, despite the daunting challenges involved in governing artificial intelligence.
How to turn back the Clock
Everyone on Earth has an interest in reducing the likelihood of global catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, advances in the life sciences, disruptive technologies, and the widespread corruption of the world’s information ecosystem.
These threats, singularly and as they interact, are of such a character and magnitude that no one nation or leader can bring them under control. That is the task of leaders and nations working together in the shared belief that common threats demand common action.
As the first step, and despite their profound disagreements, three of the world’s leading powers—the United States, China, and Russia—should commence serious dialogue about each of the global threats outlined here. At the highest levels, these three countries need to take responsibility for the existential danger the world now faces. They have the capacity to pull the world back from the brink of catastrophe. They should do so, with clarity and courage, and without delay. It’s 90 seconds to midnight.
* The safety of our world is already at risk from accidental or intentional nuclear war. Artificial intelligence integration into the critical functions of nuclear command, control and communications systems could further destabilize this delicate dynamic, with calamitous consequences. AI rearchers underline the fatal risks:

Visit the related web page

Children should not be paying the price of our inaction with their lives and their futures
by Ted Chaiban
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director
“In the entirety of my more than 25-year career with UNICEF, it is hard to recall a year in which the situation facing children affected by conflict and disaster has been as dire as the one we are currently witnessing.
For humanitarian organizations, our work has rarely been as important, and may never have been more complex. The horrendous situation in Gaza, which shakes us to the core of our humanity, exemplifies this. Earlier this week, UNICEF launched a US$9.3 billion emergency funding appeal to reach at least 93.7 million children in 155 countries.
“Yet at a time when humanitarian and protection needs have never been greater, we are approaching 2024 facing an increasingly bleak funding forecast. Flexible funding – which allows us to respond at a speed, scale and nimbleness only possible with this kind of funding – is shrinking, restricting our ability to respond quickly and ensure principled action based on needs. And humanitarian actors’ ability to safely reach affected populations where they are is increasingly at risk, as we continue to see attacks against humanitarian aid workers around the world.
“Throughout the year, children around the world have faced rampant violations and denials of their rights. In November, I spent a week in Ukraine, where I visited frontline areas in the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions, and stressed the urgent need for continued humanitarian response in conflict-affected areas.
In October, I went into Gaza where we have now seen unprecedented numbers of children reportedly killed in the continuing violence. In July, I met families in Sudan, where millions of children have been forced from their homes in what is now the largest child displacement crisis in the world.
“Beyond the headline-grabbing areas affected by conflict and other crises, there are other children suffering as well. This year I met children in need in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Chad and Mali. Such devastating conflicts, combined with a rise in climate-related disasters, disease outbreaks and displacement, mean children continue to endure the unimaginable impact of protracted crises and emerging threats.
“In all of these contexts, UNICEF is on the ground, providing children and families with essential life-saving aid, and exploring innovative new solutions to challenges that have plagued humanity for centuries. But at a time when humanitarian and protection needs have never been greater, we are concerned that our ability to meet the needs of children is going to come under significant strain.
Critically underfunded emergencies include Sudan, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Haiti, Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Bangladesh. UNICEF and our partners are committed to providing a comprehensive response to the many humanitarian crises affecting children, but children should not be paying the price of our inaction with their lives and their futures. They need continued access to essential services, like health care, safe water, basic sanitation and education.
“When I was in Sudan, I met with Mahmoud a 12-year-old in a temporary learning centre outside of Attbara who was continuing to study through an e-learning programme set up by UNICEF but what he really wanted to do was return to his home in Khartoum. He showed me a drawing of his neighborhood which he did, complete with the bombed-out pharmacy across the street from his house and the parking lot where he and his friends played football, and he just wanted to go back.
When I was in Gaza, the UNICEF Executive Director Cathy Russell and I met a 16-year-old girl in al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in Gaza who was hit by shrapnel in the back and who will never be able to walk again.
These children should not be going through this. We live in a world where we need to do everything possible, work with every fiber in our body so that children like that don’t have to go through these kinds of situations.

Visit the related web page

View more stories

Submit a Story Search by keyword and country Guestbook