The “Doomsday Clock” is now at 2 minutes to midnight. Are you scared? Because according to the experts at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, you should be. This is the closest the clock (THE clock) has been since 1953, people. And that was a scary time in the midst of the Cold War, when duck and cover drills were being held across the U.S.
Let’s face it, folks — most of us who are alarmed at the lack of progress on global warming, nuclear brinksmanship between the U.S. and North Korea, and other events are already worried. The Trump administration has Americans, and others around the world, on edge.
We don’t need a clock to tell us to be more freaked out. I can’t go from a chronic panic state to a full on panic attack just because of some symbolic clock. Sorry.
More importantly, the use of a clock to convey complex concepts, such as the need to act now to prevent the worst consequences of global warming decades from now, is a bizarre and imperfect choice at best.
Here’s how The Bulletin explains it:
The clock used “… the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet.”
“The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.”
Considering that it entered the Doomsday Clock business in 1947, it’s unlikely the Bulletin will soon change course. But in this day and age, a much easier way to induce panic and awareness is via text message. I think the tens of thousands in Hawaii who received the false ballistic missile alert two weeks ago are more aware of the threat posed by North Korea now than before they got that message.
Instead, we’re stuck with a clock. And every year journalists like me cover it as news, when scientists move its hand closer or further away from midnight.
What’s really important, though, isn’t that we’re closer to midnight (is it me, or does it seem like we’re always getting closer to midnight? Perhaps I’m just a pessimist.). The clock is more of a marketing stunt than a robust indicator of the probability that doomsday is close upon us.
A clock is a problematic symbol to use for communicating the dangers of climate change, for one thing, since that involves emissions calculations and temperature targets.
One gets tongue-tied trying to communicate, using a clock, the likelihood that the world is going to hold global warming to the Paris Agreement’s temperature target, which is “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the year 2100.
The important part of the clock exercise is the statement that comes with it, and which is worth examining. It’s not exactly relaxing reading, but it’s worth your time, particularly if you’re confused about some of the near and long-term threats facing the global community.
“The risk that nuclear weapons may be used—intentionally or because of miscalculation—grew last year around the globe,” the 2018 Doomsday Clock statement says.
On climate change, the statement’s authors, a group that includes numerous Nobel Laureates, rip apart the White House’s cabal of climate deniers and their work to undo climate policies put in place under previous administrations. Behind the pointed criticism lies the fact that the Trump administration still lacks a science adviser, a demonstration of his disdain for intellectuals.
“… The true measure of the Paris Agreement is whether nations actually fulfill their pledges to cut emissions, strengthen those pledges, and see to it that global greenhouse gas emissions start declining in short order and head toward zero,” the statement reads. “As we drift yet farther from this goal, the urgency of shifting course becomes greater, and the existential threat posed by climate change looms larger.”
The statement even cites the rise of so-called “fake news” and technologies that can be used for malicious purposes, such as social media platforms, as justification for moving the clock closer to midnight.
“The Science and Security Board is deeply concerned about the loss of public trust in political institutions, in the media, in science, and in facts themselves—a loss that the abuse of information technology has fostered,” the authors wrote.
Perhaps the best way to reform the clock would be to get with the times, and represent global threats using, at the very least, a digital watch, but more appropriately, a blaring, beeping, vibrating emergency alert sent to everyone’s phone at the same time, giving vague but disturbing information, thereby forcing us all to read the full statement.
The fact is that the scientists who work on this have thought long and hard about the state of the world today, including the rapid pace of technological development. Unfortunately, they’re hampered by the prop they use at these press conferences, which falls flat with a post-Cold War, post-analog watch population.