By Annika Schmidt
Medill News Service, Jan. 31, 2024.
The iconic Doomsday Clock remains at 90 seconds to midnight, a metaphorical warning for how close humanity is to global catastrophe, experts with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists revealed on Jan. 23.
Climate change, nuclear weapons and disruptive technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are among the threats that are keeping society in this precarious state with the hands of the clock at the closest point to midnight ever, set there for the first time in 2023. Scientists at the Bulletin’s annual clock resetting announced their decision and described efforts that are moving humanity in the right direction while many dangers continue to get worse.
“Make no mistake: Resetting the clock at 90 seconds to midnight is not an indication that the world is stable. Quite the opposite. It’s urgent for governments and communities around the world to act. And the Bulletin remains hopeful—and inspired—in seeing the younger generations leading the charge,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin.
Members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board decided there were not enough changes made to reverse threats that contributed to last year’s setting, which was dominated by the Russia-Ukraine war, said Daniel Holz, a professor at the University of Chicago and chair of the board.
“Where humanity is at [in] this moment [is] the closest it’s ever been to ending itself. I don’t know how anyone could come away from that seeing this as a good thing,” Hol said in an interview.
The clock is set at the closest to midnight since it began ticking in 1947. The Bulletin was founded by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and University of Chicago scientists involved in developing the first atomic bomb in 1945. The first clock setting was 7 minutes to midnight, early in the nuclear arms race when the atomic bomb was still a new technology. Today, experts on the Science and Security Board consider all human-made threats to existence when setting the clock, including nuclear weapons and climate change.
The Doomsday Clock is not about predicting the future, but rather demonstrating a current state of affairs. Despite a bleak outlook from experts, there is hope. Holz called attention to how the minute hand of the clock has moved closer to midnight and away from midnight throughout its history.
Holz says it may be possible to move the hands back again with action from leaders and people across the world. This sentiment was echoed by science educator and engineer Bill Nye, who spoke at the Jan. 23 presentation.
“We can solve these problems. We can address these problems,” Nye said. “The other thing we can do about climate change and biological threats is talk about it. If we were talking about it the way we’re talking about these other important issues — crime, football games — we would be doing something about it.”
The planet sustained a record-breaking year on many climate fronts: Greenhouse gas emissions rose to new highs, driving global warming. North Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures broke records, Arctic ice melted to its lowest levels, and it was the hottest year on record, according to Ambuj Sagar, deputy director and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He said last year’s extreme weather and natural disasters were made more likely because of climate change.
“There has been a fair amount of bad news, for sure, but there is also some good news,” Sagar said at the announcement event.
At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conferences in November and December, a “global stocktake” is encouraging nations and stakeholders to take actions towards tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency on a global scale by 2030.
Sagar also said renewable energy is already dominating new energy deployment. “We’re moving in the right direction, but not as fast or as deeply as some would like,” he said.
Concern over nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine War was a major factor in the decision that pushed the clock hands to 90 seconds last year. The threat remains, Princeton University associate professor Alexander Glaser said during the presentation, but has decreased.
The ongoing attack on Gaza in the war between Israel and Hamas has taken more than 25,000 Palestinian lives, according to the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip. The conflict is heightening tensions and may allude to a broader conflict in the Middle East, which Glaser said this contributes to the threat of nuclear war. He said these current events create the “backdrop for a crisis in nuclear arms control.”
There is also discussion in weapons states about modernizing and increasing nuclear arsenal. A report from the Pentagon released last year indicated that China has increased its nuclear arsenal, and Russia may be doing so as well. The U.S. also plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal, according to the Department of Defense.
“We’re setting ourselves up for a three-way arms race which is unprecedented and quite concerning so the picture is quite bleak on the nuclear side this year,” Glaser said, referring to the U.S., Russia and China.
Artificial intelligence has been discussed in Science and Security Board meetings before, but this year, experts expanded upon the threats it may pose to humanity.
Experts on Jan. 23 shared concerns that AI has the potential to worsen disinformation, which will make it harder to solve problems like climate change and nuclear threats. Artificial intelligence may also have the potential to aid in developing new weapons, including dangerous biological technology.
Weapons technology, experts explained, is difficult to govern and, while nations recognize the need for governance over it, effective action seems unlikely.
“There is tension between advancement and use of this tool to help with the safety and research efforts that have to go on [to] maybe get ahead of these things,” said Asha M. George, executive director for the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. “There’s that on the one side and then on the other side, there’s all this horrible, terrible stuff, so governance can’t just handle the one negative piece.”
Photo at top: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists kept the hands of the Doomsday Clock at the closest point to midnight they have ever been. From left, Asha M. George, Herb Lin, Bill Nye, Rachel Bronson, Alexander Glaser and Daniel Holz stand next to the Doomsday Clock set at 90 seconds to midnight. (Photo courtesy of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.)