Technology & Science

Doomsday Clock hovers dangerously close to midnight, as experts warn of 'crossroads' on climate change

The Doomsday Clock, introduced in 1947 as a symbolic representation of how close humanity is to destroying civilization, remains at 100 seconds to midnight, as experts warn the world is at a 'crossroads' on climate change, but see some positive developments.

The clock, introduced in 1947, is symbolic of how close humanity is to destroying civilization

Robert Rosner, left, and Suzet McKinney, members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' science and security board, revealed the 2021 setting of the Doomsday Clock on Wednesday, saying it would remain at 100 seconds to midnight. (Thomas Gaulkin/Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Wednesday the 2021 Doomsday Clock remains unchanged from its 2020 spot at 100 seconds to midnight, but experts warn the world is at a turning point.

"The Doomsday Clock continues to hover dangerously, reminding us about how much work is needed to push the hands away from midnight," said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at Wednesday's announcement.

The clock, introduced in 1947, is a symbolic representation of how close humanity is to destroying civilization. It is maintained by a group of experts with the bulletin, a non-profit organization tracking man-made threats. 

Typically, the group moves the hands forward or back each year, depending on how vulnerable the world is. Midnight represents a catastrophe.

The clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight last year, the closest to midnight it has ever been.

(Kevin Kirk)

Pandemic a 'historic wake-up call'

Experts said at Wednesday's announcement the pandemic is an example of how governments and organizations are not ready for global emergencies.

"We recognize that humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. The pandemic will recede eventually," said Bronson.    

"Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call." 

It is, she said, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are not prepared to manage complex and dangerous challenges, including nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity. 

The pandemic also brought on challenges as it sparked what the World Health Organization calls an infodemic, an overabundance of information that "includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals." 

"The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying infodemic have become intertwined with critical uncertainties regarding science, technology, and crisis communications," reads the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' statement published on Wednesday.

The bulletin also noted in their statement that 2020 saw the effects of climate change around the world, including massive wildfires in North America and Australia and rising sea levels and melting sea ice and glaciers. 

The latest setting of the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of how close humanity is to destroying civilization, remains unchanged from 2020 and is still at 100 seconds to midnight, which represents a catastrophe. (Thomas Gaulkin/Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The group of experts who are part of the non-profit organization also emphasized in their statement that last year also saw accelerating nuclear programs in multiple countries which "moved the world into less stable and manageable territory last year."

Positive developments factored into decision

In making their decision, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists also recognized that there were some positive developments.

One of those developments was the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, who recognizes climate change is a global threat and has already committed to having the U.S. rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change.

Those promising moves, among others, led the bulletin to keep the arms of the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight as they believe there hasn't yet been enough progress to justify moving the clock away from midnight. 

"Fundamentally, I would say we are at a crossroads. We are at a very dangerous crossroads," said Susan Solomon, science and security board member with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Lee and Geraldine Martin professor of environmental studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's the choices that are just about to come that will determine our path."

With files from Nicole Mortillaro

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