How vulnerable is the world to catastrophe?
That is the question the Doomsday Clock, first established in 1947, seeks to answer. Back then, at the beginning of the Cold War, the clock gauged the threat of nuclear war, but in the intervening years other potentially catastrophic threats have arisen, such as climate change. On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 26, those turning the hands of the historic Doomsday Clock will announce if it is to be adjusted this year.
With its ominous countdown to midnight, the Doomsday Clock, overseen by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which includes 16 Nobel Laureates, is anything but reassuring. Updated over 20 times in its nearly 70 years of keeping time, in January, 2015 the clock moved forward two minutes to read three minutes before midnight. This is the closest it's been to midnight end times for more than three decades, when the Cold War reached a crisis point in the early '80s.
In announcing the move forward last year, the BAS listed "unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals" as the primary threats. Furthermore, they are extremely worried over the way in which "world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe."
"These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth," they wrote.
Over the past year, these risks have not abated, but in some ways they have moderated.
When it comes to climate change the outcome seems mixed. While 2015 was by far the hottest year on record, continuing the trend of unusually hot years this century, world leaders also reached a historic climate deal in Paris at the end of the year. So while climate change remains by and large unchecked, there is an argument to be made that the type of political leadership needed to avert catastrophe—which many scientists consider to be limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius—has started to show through. If this is the case, it would be just in time to avert disaster, as the world has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century.
It is worth noting that while humans have not yet succumbed to any full-on post-apocalyptic scenarios, plants and animals are not faring so well. Many scientists believe the planet has already entered its sixth mass extinction, and according to a recent report in Science, more than 75% of species of animals and plants could be gone within a few centuries.
As for nuclear weapons proliferation, the prime candidate for concern, Iran, established a groundbreaking accord with world leaders last year to take steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. On January 16, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran is following through with its side of the deal in ensuring that the country's nuclear program "is and remains exclusively peaceful."
On the other hand, earlier this month, North Korea's government claimed to test a hydrogen bomb for the first time—a weapon that is much more powerful than an atomic bomb. While this would prove a huge advancement in the rogue nation's nuclear capabilities, many experts doubt this claim, which has not been independently verified. Under either scenario it's a move in the wrong direction for the Doomsday Clock, and was met with widespread condemnation from the U.S., Japan, and the United Nations Security Council.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the danger posed by climate change, the recent North Korean nuclear test, and tensions between the United States and Russia, which remain "at levels reminiscent of the Cold War," will be the main factors influencing the decision to adjust the Doomsday Clock or not.
With a doomsday scenario just a few ticks away, the low point of the Doomsday Clock can seem a world away. This came in 1991, when the clock struck 17 minutes to midnight as the end of the Cold War brought hope for a more peaceful and secure future. In the ensuing quarter century the rise of climate change as a global concern, the rapid expansion of technology and all the potential risks that accompany it, and the failure of world leaders to unite a stronger form of global government and allay nuclear fears—ideally by destroying nuclear weapons stockpiles—has caused the clock to precipitously drop back to nearly its all-time low. The only lower mark was in 1953, when the clock hit 2 minutes as the United States decided to pursue its own hydrogen bomb.
Seventy years is a very short period, even in terms of human history. With the Doomsday Clock remaining relatively close to midnight throughout it brief existence, it's easy to understand why scientist Stephen Hawking, who has previously commented on the Doomsday Clock, recently said humans will destroy the planet within the next few millennia. He stated that while the chance of disaster on planet Earth is quite low in any given year, it adds up over time.
According to Hawking, what ends up taking down humanity will most likely be climate change, nuclear war, and/or genetically engineered viruses.
“It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million," Hawking previously told the Big Think.
My prediction for this year's clock: It will hold steady at 3 minutes to midnight. While risks associated with climate change and nuclear weapons have perhaps increased this year, the global resolve to confront these existential threats has shown some hope of coalescing. At the same time renewable energy technology has continued to advance. The next few years will go a long way in determining which way the clock ticks. For now, we pause.