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This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.
And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.
Russia’s recent actions contravene decades of commitments by Moscow. In 1994, Russia joined the United States and United Kingdom in Budapest, Hungary, to solemnly declare that it would "respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine" and "refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine..." These assurances were made explicitly on the understanding that Ukraine would relinquish nuclear weapons on its soil and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—both of which Ukraine did.
Russia has also brought its war to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites, violating international protocols and risking widespread release of radioactive materials. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure these plants so far have been rebuffed.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the United States, New START, stands in jeopardy. Unless the two parties resume negotiations and find a basis for further reductions, the treaty will expire in February 2026. This would eliminate mutual inspections, deepen mistrust, spur a nuclear arms race, and heighten the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in August, the world has entered “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”
The war’s effects are not limited to an increase in nuclear danger; they also undermine global efforts to combat climate change. Countries dependent on Russian oil and gas have sought to diversify their supplies and suppliers, leading to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking.
In the context of a hot war and against the backdrop of nuclear threats, Russia’s false accusations that Ukraine planned to use radiological dispersal devices, chemical weapons, and biological weapons take on new meaning as well. The continuing stream of disinformation about bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine raises concerns that Russia itself may be thinking of deploying such weapons, which many experts believe it continues to develop.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the risk of nuclear weapons use, raised the specter of biological and chemical weapons use, hamstrung the world’s response to climate change, and hampered international efforts to deal with other global concerns. The invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory have also violated international norms in ways that may embolden others to take actions that challenge previous understandings and threaten stability.
There is no clear pathway for forging a just peace that discourages future aggression under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But at a minimum, the United States must keep the door open to principled engagement with Moscow that reduces the dangerous increase in nuclear risk the war has fostered. One element of risk reduction could involve sustained, high-level US military-to-military contacts with Russia to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation. The US government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; they all should be explored. Finding a path to serious peace negotiations could go a long way toward reducing the risk of escalation. In this time of unprecedented global danger, concerted action is required, and every second counts.
The Bulletin equips the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threatsto our existence.
"This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential," said one doctor. "I don't know if people recognize how big a deal this is."
As a deadly strain of avian influenza continues to decimate bird populations around the world and spread among other animals, some scientists are warning that mammal-to-mammal transmission has emerged as a real possibility with potentially catastrophic consequences for humans.
Over the past year, officials in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada have detected cases of the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu in a variety of species, including bears, foxes, otters, raccoons, and skunks. Last month, a cat suffered serious neurological symptoms from a late 2022 infection, according to French officials who said that the virus showed genetic characteristics consistent with adaptation to mammals.
Most of these infections are likely the result of mammals eating infected birds, according to Jürgen Richt, director of the Center on Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at Kansas State University.
More alarming, multiple researchers argue, was the large outbreak of H5N1 on a Spanish mink farm last October, which could mark the first known instance of mammal-to-mammal transmission.
"Farmworkers began noticing a spike in deaths among the animals, with sick minks experiencing an array of dire symptoms like loss of appetite, excessive saliva, bloody snouts, tremors, and a lack of muscle control," CBC Newsreported Thursday. "Eventually, the entire population of minks was either killed or culled—more than 50,000 animals in total."
"A virus which has evolved on a mink farm and subsequently infects farmworkers exposed to infected animals is a highly plausible route for the emergence of a virus capable of human-to-human transmission to emerge."
A study published two weeks ago in Eurosurveillance, a peer-reviewed journal of epidemiological research, described the outbreak and its public health implications. Notably, the authors wrote that their findings "indicate that an onward transmission of the virus to other minks may have taken place in the affected farm."
As CBC Newsnoted, "That's a major shift, after only sporadic cases among humans and other mammals over the last decade."
Michelle Wille, a University of Sydney researcher who focuses on the dynamics of wild bird viruses, told the Canadian outlet that "this outbreak signals the very real potential for the emergence of mammal-to-mammal transmission."
It's just one farm and none of the workers—all of whom wore personal protective equipment—were infected. However, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based infectious disease specialist, warned Thursday that if the virus mutates in a way that enables it to become increasingly transmissible between mammals, including humans, "it could have deadly consequences."
"This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential," Bogoch told CBC News. "I don't know if people recognize how big a deal this is."
A "mass mortality event" involving roughly 2,500 endangered seals found off the coast of Russia's Caspian Sea last month has also raised alarm.
A researcher at Russia's Dagestan State University, Alimurad Gadzhiyev, said last week that early samples from the seals "tested positive for bird flu," adding that they were still studying whether the virus caused the die-off.
Peacock warned there have been mixed reports from Russia about the seals, which could have contracted the virus by eating infected seabirds.
But if the seals did give bird flu to each other it "would be yet another very concerning development," he added.
"The mink outbreaks, the increased number of infections of scavenger mammals, and the potential seal outbreak would all point to this virus having the potential to cause a pandemic" in humans, he said.
Among birds, the mortality rate of H5N1 can approach 100%, ravaging wild bird populations and poultry farms alike. The World Organization for Animal Health toldBBC News on Thursday that it has recorded almost 42 million cases of H5N1 in wild and domestic birds since the current outbreak started in October 2021. Another 193 million domestic birds have been culled in an attempt to curb transmission.
The highly pathogenic strain of avian flu also frequently causes death in other mammals, including humans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 870 cases of H5N1 were reported in humans from 2003 to 2022 and they resulted in at least 457 deaths—a fatality rate that exceeds 50%.
The virus has "not acquired the ability for sustained transmission among humans," the WHO stated last month. "Thus the likelihood of human-to-human spread is low."
However, a December report from the U.K. Health Security Agency warned that the "rapid and consistent acquisition of the mutation in mammals may imply this virus has a propensity to cause zoonotic infections," meaning that it could jump to humans.
Dr. Wenqing Zhang, head of the WHO's global influenza program, told BBC News on Thursday that the threat posed by the virus spilling over "is very concerning and the risk has been increasing over the years as reflected in the number of outbreaks in animals as well as a number of infections in humans."
"We're closely related to minks and ferrets, in terms of influenza risks... If it's propagating to minks, and killing minks, it's worrisome to us."
As CBC News reported this week: "Most human infections also appeared to involve people having direct contact with infected birds. Real-world mink-to-mink transmission now firmly suggests H5N1 is now 'poised to emerge in mammals,' Wille said—and while the outbreak in Spain may be the first reported instance of mammalian spread, it may not be the last."
Wille warned that "a virus which has evolved on a mink farm and subsequently infects farmworkers exposed to infected animals is a highly plausible route for the emergence of a virus capable of human-to-human transmission to emerge."
Louise Moncla, an assistant professor of pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, told the outlet that viruses often adapt to new host species through an "intermediary host."
"And so what's concerning about this is that this is exactly the kind of scenario you would expect to see that could lead to this type of adaptation, that could allow these viruses to replicate better in other mammals—like us," Moncla explained.
The alarm bells sounded this week echo long-standing warnings about the growing prospects of a devastating bird flu pandemic.
In his 2005 book, The Monster at Our Door, the late historian Mike Davis wrote that "the essence of the avian flu threat... is that a mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity."
Alluding to the "constantly evolving nature of influenza viruses," the WHO recently stressed "the importance of global surveillance to detect and monitor virological, epidemiological, and clinical changes associated with emerging or circulating influenza viruses that may affect human (or animal) health, and timely virus-sharing for risk assessment."
To avert a cataclysmic bird flu pandemic, scientists have also emphasized the need to ramp up H5N1 vaccine production, with Wille pointing out that "a very aggressive and successful poultry vaccination campaign ultimately stopped all human cases" of the H7N9 strain of the virus in the early 2010s.
Others have also criticized the global fur farming industry, citing the spread of bird flu as well the coronavirus among cruelly confined minks.
"We're closely related to minks and ferrets, in terms of influenza risks," Dr. Jan Hajek, an infectious diseases physician at Vancouver General Hospital, told CBC News. "If it's propagating to minks, and killing minks, it's worrisome to us."
The senator noted the organization acknowledged it received funding from oil giant Chevron as recently as 2020.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey on Friday joined thousands of scientists from across the globe in demanding that the American Geophysical Union answer for its decision in December to expel two climate researchers from its Fall Meeting after they staged a brief, peaceful protest urging their colleagues to engage in climate activism.
In a letter to the AGU, the Massachusetts Democrat denounced the organization's "gross overreaction" and warned that it could "have a chilling effect on scientifically informed activism by climate scientists."
As Common Dreamsreported last month, Rose Abramoff and Peter Kalmus walked on stage in between speakers at the meeting on December 15 in Chicago, and displayed a banner reading, "Out of the lab and into the streets."
The protest lasted roughly 30 seconds, but officials responded by ripping the banner out of the scientists' hands and, according to Kalmus, taking their badges and removing them from the meeting.
"It is as baffling as it is disappointing that AGU apparently paired its important efforts to promote global understanding of climate change with efforts to suppress actions taken in furtherance of it."
HEATED reported in late January that Kalmus and Abramoff were threatened with arrest if they returned and were told that their workplaces would be contacted. On January 3, Abramoff was fired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
"A source with knowledge of the AGU ethics process implied [an organization official] had not contacted [Oak Ridge], and that the tip off had come from a colleague at Oak Ridge," HEATED reported. "But AGU would not confirm that on the record, citing the ongoing investigation."
Markey noted in his letter on Friday that, "discordantly," the conference welcomed comments by former Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada about the "ethical and moral responsibility" scientists have to place their research and knowledge at the "center of political action," even though it may be "very unpopular."
"Sadly, AGU's response to Drs. Abramoff and Kalmus appears to have validated former President Quesada's prescient warning," wrote Markey. "It is as baffling as it is disappointing that AGU apparently paired its important efforts to promote global
understanding of climate change with efforts to suppress actions taken in furtherance of it."
The senator, who co-sponsored Green New Deal legislation with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), called on the AGU to answer a number of questions about their actions, calling for clarification about whether officials threatened the scientists and contacted their workplaces as well as asking about potential conflicts of interest at the organization.
"AGU acknowledged funding from Chevron as recently as 2020, and previously voted to continue receiving money from Exxon," wrote Markey. "Does AGU currently accept sponsorship or any other form of funding from fossil fuel companies for the annual Fall Meeting or any other activities? If not, when did AGU stop taking such funding? If yes, what safeguards are in place to ensure that AGU is not influenced by such funding in how it responds to climate protest?"
More than 2,300 scientists have signed a separate letter condemning AGU's actions.
"This cruelty happened nearly five years ago," said one advocate. "That's an unimaginably long time for children to go without their parents."
As some families seek restitution for the suffering caused by former President Donald Trump's family separation policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday acknowledged that nearly five years after the policy was first enforced, 998 children have yet to be reunited with their relatives.
On the two-year anniversary of the establishment of President Joe Biden's Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, the DHS said it has reunited more than 600 children who were taken from their families under Trump's so-called "zero tolerance" policy, which called for the prosecution of anyone who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without going through official immigration channels.
Many children were reunited through a court process before Biden took office, but of the nearly 4,000 children who were taken from their families and sent to locations across the country with recordkeeping about their identities and whereabouts that was "patchwork at best," according to DHS, roughly a quarter of them are still separated.
"This cruelty happened nearly five years ago," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service. "That's an unimaginably long time for children to go without their parents."
\u201cThis cruelty happened nearly 5 years ago. That\u2019s an unimaginably long time for children to go without their parents. Tragically, when they reunite, it often takes even longer to heal from the trauma. Without a doubt, the Family Separation policy will forever be a stain on the US.\u201d— Krish O'Mara Vignarajah (@Krish O'Mara Vignarajah) 1675363540
Many of the children who were separated arrived at the border from Central American countries, with their parents traveling to the border to seek asylum from violence and conflict—exercising a protected human right under international and domestic law.
The DHS noted that the number of families coming forward to identify themselves as having been forcibly separated continues to grow.
"We understand that our critical work is not finished," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to fulfill President Biden's pledge to reunify all children who were separated from their families under the 'zero tolerance' policy to the greatest extent possible, and we continue to work diligently to incorporate the foundational principle of family unity in our policies and operations."
"The real world human impact of the Trump administration's depravity still reverberates today."
The agency is currently in the process of reuniting 148 children with their families, and has contacted 183 additional families regarding reunification.
Aside from the attempting to reunite families, the Biden administration said it is also meeting with recently reunified families "to hear directly from them and better understand their experiences and current needs," including support for the trauma the federal government inflicted on them.
On Wednesday, the day before the DHS made its announcement, Selvin Argueta and his son, who is now 21, filed a federal lawsuit seeking monetary damages for the forced separation they suffered in 2018 under the policy. Argueta's son, Selvin Najera, was 16 when they arrived at the border from Guatemala, where they had faced threats from gangs.
Argueta was deported while Najera was sent to a detention center where, the lawsuit alleges, he faced physical and emotional abuse.
Father and son were reunited in January 2020 after a federal judge ruled that Argueta's deportation was unlawful. Their lawsuit seeks restitution for "intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, abuse of process, and harboring a minor."
"The real world human impact of the Trump administration's depravity still reverberates today," said journalist Ahmed Baba.
Rights advocates have condemned the Biden administration for continuing other anti-immigration polices including Title 42, under which families are still being separated. The Texas Observerreported in November that between January 2021, when Biden took office, and August 2022, at least 372 cases of family separation were documented by the government.
"Though family separation is no longer explicitly used as a weapon in U.S. immigration policy," wrote Erica Bryant at Vera Institute of Justice last June, "it is still a horrifying result."