100 Seconds for Survival

Yesterday’s annual Doomsday Clock announcement revealed an unprecedentedly short setting for the planet’s future. But we can still move back the hands of time.

January 24, 2020

3:45 pm

The Doomsday Clock sounds like a device invented by the megalomaniacal villain scientist in the thriller movie, which counts down the minutes until the planet is destroyed — by him.

That’s actually fairly close to what it actually is. Except:

  • it was invented by heroic scientists whose only intentions are to warn us as to how perilously close we are to seeing the planet destroyed
  • the ones who are destroying the planet are us
  • as announced yesterday, for the first time in the clock’s 73-year history, it is no longer measuring the planet’s life-expectancy in metaphorical minutes, but in seconds

The Doomsday Clock is the conceit of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a Chicago-based non-profit that was founded in 1945 by two scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. They created the organization in the mushroom-clouded wake of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their early bulletin magazine featured the work of, you know, Albert Einstein. Yeah, THAT Albert Einstein.

When the clock was first unveiled in 1947, it was set to seven minutes. That, of course, was then an alarming amount of time: a metaphorical unlucky seven, indicative of just how tense were relations between the United States and its fellow-nuclear-wielding adversary, the Soviet Union.

Since then, the Bulletin team has met twice a year to determine if any changes to the clock are needed, and they have moved the clock 24 times since its 1947 launch. Some of those movements have been backwards, reflecting the notion that progress on issues like nuclear arsenals, the climate emergency, and disruptive technologies can have positive consequences. In 1991, for example, the clock was set back to 17 minutes — a sign of reduced tensions between superpowers, and a respite for an anxious global population.

But what was 70+-years ago a nail-biting seven minutes has been reduced to a finger-gnawing 100 seconds. The newest setting, unveiled yesterday, is an indicator that the triple threat of nuclear weapons, the climate crisis, and cyberwarfare is starting to elude our control.

As the Bulletin put it in a statement yesterday, “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.”

The Bulletin scientists recognized the efforts of young people to help move the needle on the climate emergency, but again laid blame at the feet of international politicians.

“Public awareness of the climate crisis grew over the course of 2019,” read the statement, “largely because of mass protests by young people around the world. Just the same, governmental action on climate change still falls far short of meeting the challenge at hand. At UN climate meetings last year, national delegates made fine speeches but put forward few concrete plans to further limit the carbon dioxide emissions that are disrupting Earth’s climate. This limited political response came during a year when the effects of manmade climate change were manifested by one of the warmest years on record, extensive wildfires, and quicker-than-expected melting of glacial ice.”

There’s no escaping the fact that, as doom-and-gloom announcements go, this is one of them. But in terms of silver linings, there is hope. The Clock itself is hopeful, in that it always reflects time that exists — daylight between where we are now and where we don’t want to be.

As long as there is time, that is a positive. And it should serve as a signal — a wake-up call, if you will — for what we need to do to heed the warnings of shortened time we have left. We can — hopefully — help move back the hands of time. Or, less optimistically, we can hit snooze.

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