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The doomsday clock has been ticking for 76 years. But this is no ordinary clock.
It attempts to assess how close humanity is to destroying the world.
Tuesday the clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight – the closest to the hour it has ever been, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who created the clock in 1947. Midnight represents the time when we will have made the Earth uninhabitable for mankind. From 2020 to 2022, the clock was set to midnight minus 100.
The clock is not designed to definitively measure existential threats, but rather to spark conversations about difficult scientific topics such as climate change, according to the Bulletin.
The decision to move the clock forward 10 seconds this year is largely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the heightened risk of nuclear escalation, the Bulletin said in a press release. The continuing threats posed by the climate crisis, as well as the breakdown of norms and institutions needed to reduce the risks associated with biological threats like Covid-19, have also played a role.
“We live in a time of unprecedented danger, and the hour of the Doomsday Clock reflects that reality,” said Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin, said in the press release. “This is a decision that our experts do not take lightly. The US government, its NATO allies and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore them all to the fullest of their ability to go back in time. »
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by a group of atomic scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, the code name for the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.
The body was originally designed to measure nuclear threats, but in 2007 the Bulletin made the decision to include climate change in its calculations.
Over the past three-quarters of a century, clock time has changed depending on how close scientists believe the human race is to total destruction. Some years the weather changes, and others it doesn’t.
The doomsday clock is set each year by experts on the Bulletin’s Science and Security Committee in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 11 Nobel Laureates.
Although the clock has been an effective wake-up call when it comes to reminding people of the cascading crises facing the planet, some have questioned the usefulness of the 75-year-old clock.
“It’s a flawed metaphor,” Michael E. Mann, Presidential Professor Emeritus in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN in 2022, pointing out that the framing of the clock combines different types of risks that have different characteristics and occur in different time scales. Yet, he adds, it “remains an important rhetorical device that reminds us, year after year, of the precariousness of our current existence on this planet.”
Each model has constraints, Eryn MacDonald, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ global security program, told CNN in 2022, adding that the Bulletin has made thoughtful decisions each year about how to draw attention people about existential threats and required actions.
“While I wish we could go back to talking about minutes to midnight instead of seconds, unfortunately that no longer reflects reality,” she said.
The clock has never reached midnight and Bronson hopes it never will.
“When the clock is at midnight, it means there was some kind of nuclear exchange or catastrophic climate change that wiped out humanity,” she said. “We never really want to get there and we won’t know when we do.
Clockwork is not intended to measure threats, but rather to spark conversation and encourage public engagement on science-based topics such as climate change and nuclear disarmament.
If the clock is able to do it, then Bronson considers it a success.
When a new time is set on the clock, people listen, she says. At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK in 2021, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson quoted the Doomsday Clock when talking about the climate crisis facing the world, Bronson noted.
Bronson said she hopes people will discuss whether they agree with the Bulletin’s decision and have meaningful discussions about the forces driving change.
Moving going back with bold and concrete actions is still possible. In fact, the hand moved the farthest from midnight – a whopping 17 minutes before the hour – in 1991, when then The administration of President George HW Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviet Union. In 2016, the clock was three minutes to midnight due to the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
“We at the Bulletin believe that because humans have created these threats, we can reduce them,” Bronson said. “But it’s not easy, and it never has been. And it requires serious work and global commitment at all levels of society.
Don’t underestimate the power of talking about these important issues with your peers, Bronson said.
“You might not feel it because you’re doing nothing, but we know that public engagement pushes (a) leader to do things,” she said.
To have a positive impact on climate change, look at your daily habits and see if there are small changes you can make in your life, like how often you walk versus drive and how your home is heated, Bronson explained.
Eating seasonally and locally, reducing food waste and recycling properly are other ways to mitigate or manage the effects of the climate crisis.