Tick Tock Tick Tock: Doomsday Clock Sticks at 100 Seconds to Midnight

Maybe they should go digital, because it sure feels worse.

Doomsday Clock being unveiled
Doomsday Clock being unveiled on January 20, 2022.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

For 75 years now, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been moving the minute hand on a quarter of a clock face. According to the Bulletin: "The Doomsday Clock is set every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains." We at Treehugger try to be a cheerful and upbeat bunch looking for solutions, but the Doomsday Clock can't be ignored.

Surprisingly, they have left the clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the same as it was in 2020 when Melissa Breyer, Treehugger editorial director, described nuclear tensions, climate change, and cyber-based disinformation. Perhaps if they had a modern digital clock instead of a quarter of an analog one made of wooden sticks they might have moved it, because it sure seems that things have got a lot worse in the last two years.

One of our regular skeptical commenters complained in Breyer's post: "Climate change doesn't occur swiftly enough to be a 'doomsday' scenario. Pandemics and nuclear war do, but you can't predict pandemics so really we're just talking about nuclear war with the clock." Sure enough, two months later we had a full-blown pandemic.

This year, the pandemic is indeed in the latest news of fresh disasters, along with other biological threats. As the Bulletin notes in its "OMG we're all gonna die" statement:

Biological Threats

"To deal with the crisis at hand, the world is focusing almost all its efforts on COVID-19, to the exclusion of other biological threats. The scope of potential biological threats is expansive. Preventing and mitigating future biological events will require a wider lens for viewing biological threats. For example, slow vaccination rates have allowed virus mutations, perpetuating the threat from COVID-19. Similarly, failing to address antibiotic resistance could trigger a worldwide pandemic involving antimicrobial-resistant organisms within a decade."

The Climate Crisis

As to our skeptical commenter's statement that climate change doesn't happen swiftly enough, tell that to the people in Canada's British Columbia who last year seemed to have a climate crisis every week, from cold snaps to heatwaves to catastrophic floods; to the people in the U.S. states of California and Oregon, who had to breathe smoke from what seemed endless fires; to the people of Henan province in China who got eight months of rain in one day. Meanwhile, the Bulletin complains about what can only be described as predatory delay in Glasgow, Scotland.

"Countries were under pressure to strengthen their emission-reduction pledges significantly relative to their pledges six years ago in Paris. The results, unfortunately, were insufficient. China and India affirmed that they would move away from use of coal, but only gradually; they affirmed for the first time the objective of achieving 'net-zero,' but only in 2060 and 2070, respectively.... Overall, countries’ projections and plans for fossil fuel production are far from adequate to achieve the global Paris goals to limit the warming of the surface of the planet to 'well below two degrees Celsius' (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to the temperature around 1800, at the beginning of the industrial revolution."

The Nuclear Threat

Then there are the nukes that started it all with the first Doomsday Clock. The Bulletin says, "During 2021, some nuclear risks declined while others rose." They note that "the February 2021 agreement between the United States and Russia to renew New START for five years is a decidedly positive development." But there is no mention of Ukraine. Perhaps they hammered this all out on the old Underwood next to the old clock before the rumbles of invasion and war were heard. China is rattling swords over Taiwan; centrifuges are revving up in Iran.

There are also domestic crises that we never dreamed of. The Bulletin notes that "as the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol demonstrated, no country is immune from threats to its democracy, and in a state with nuclear-weapons-usable material and nuclear weapons, both can be targets for terrorists and fanatics." 

The Age of Disinformation

Climate arsonists and skeptics have always been a problem, but the combination of election and vaccine denial in the U.S. has taken disinformation to a whole new level.

"Similar trends regarding COVID-related disinformation are apparent around the world, crippling the ability of public health authorities and medical science to achieve higher vaccination rates. Mask-wearing and social distancing are similarly discouraged by disinformation. While we know more now about the role of social media campaigns in taking advantage of vulnerabilities in human psychology and cognition to spread disinformation and societal disunity, the behavior of social media companies has changed hardly at all. Political attacks on institutions that provide societal continuity and store hard-won knowledge about how best to deal with problems continue apace."

Is It Time for a New Clock?

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cover

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock was designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf and was first shown on the cover of the 1947 edition of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists." They describe how it came about:

"Martyl first considered using the letter U, the chemical symbol for uranium, as her design. As she listened more intently to their conversations, though, she soon realized that it was the atomic scientists’ urgency about the looming dangers of this new technology that was most compelling. So she drew the hands of a clock ticking down to midnight. Like the countdown to an atomic bomb explosion, it suggested the destruction that awaited if no one took action to stop it."

But it is hard to show a hundred seconds on a traditional 17th-century analog clock face, and we are in the 21st century when clocks can display milliseconds. It also isn't going to be nearly as impressive a symbol to young people who, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph, apparently can't even read analog clocks anymore.


Lloyd Alter

Even my iPhone does one-hundredth of a second on its stopwatch. Maybe they should just use one of those, or make an app, because it just doesn't feel right that the hand hasn't moved in three years. If they are not ready to go to 99 seconds, at least they could go to 99.50.