Humanity is closer than it’s ever been to extinction, according to international experts in nuclear technology, cyber policy and climate science. They announced today (Jan.23) that the Doomsday Clock, a symbol of our world’s proximity to annihilation, will stay at 90 seconds until midnight. The clock was first set to this time in 2023, the closest it’s been to midnight since its creation in 1947.
“We could be facing catastrophe unless we better manage the technologies we’ve created,” said celebrity scientist Bill Nye, one of the participants in the annual Doomsday Clock announcement, in a statement. “It’s time to act.”
The clock is a product of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit organization created in 1945 by Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and the University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons at the Manhattan Project. Its initial purpose was to spur public debate following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Who sets the Doomsday Clock time and how?
Initially set to seven minutes until midnight, the Doomsday Clock’s time has fluctuated in response to political, environmental and other factors over the years. The time is decided by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes ten Nobel Laureates. Humanity, according to the group, was furthest from self-extinction in 1991, when the Doomsday Clock was set to 17 minutes until midnight in response to the end of the Cold War.
Emerging technologies, climate threats and global conflicts have brought the clock closer and closer to midnight. “The risks of last year continue with unabated ferocity,” said Rachel Bronson, CEO and president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, during today’s announcement. The ongoing war in Ukraine was cited by the Bulletin as a threat driving potential nuclear escalation.
“Traditional nuclear arms control has really come to an end for now,” added Alexander Glaser, a mechanical and aerospace professor at Princeton University. The mass expansion of nuclear arsenals in China, Russia and the United States is a major concern, he said. “In many ways, we’re setting ourselves up for a three-way arms race which is unprecedented and quite concerning,” said Glaser, urging the nations to engage in a serious dialogue.
The Doomsday Clock’s 2024 time was also influenced by concerns over emerging biological technologies and the rapid advance of generative artificial intelligence (A.I.) The growth of A.I. “has disrupted many segments of society already,” noted Herb Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University. Global governance, especially governance of private sector actors with influence over these technologies, is needed more than ever as we move forward, he added.
Despite its dire warnings, the Bulletin says the Doomsday Clock should inspire public discussions about how to turn back the clock by designing solutions. The clock is “set up to get people talking about these issues,” said Nye. “You have to be optimistic or you’re not going to get anything done.”
One of the most promising areas for action is climate change, which is a significant factor in the Doomsday Clock settings. Noting a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the increase in climate-related disasters and 2023 being the hottest year on record, the Bulletin in its 2024 statement describes our current climate change outlook as “ominous.” But the world also invested a record-breaking $1.7 trillion in clean energy and saw a historic climate deal for renewable energy at COP28,” noted Ambuj Sagar, deputy director at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, adding that individual citizens should push for greater climate policies and action. “We are moving in the right direction, even if it’s not as fast as we might like,” he said.