Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has ticked away the minutes toward—or away from—annihilation. Each year, researchers at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decide where the hands on the iconic graphic will fall—the closer they are to midnight, the closer it appears we are to some doomsday event that could end humankind. For the past two years, they’ve set the clock at 100 seconds to midnight. Then on January 24 2023 this was revised down to 90 seconds to midnight, suggesting the world is closer to disaster right now than at any other point in the last 76 years.
Originally intended to convey how close the world is to nuclear war, the Doomsday Clock has expanded its remit in recent years. Since 2007, the researchers responsible for setting the clock have also believed climate change, as well as any human-made threats that might spark a global catastrophe. In 2020, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board cited increased nuclear tensions and a failure to address climate change as the leading reasons why the Doomsday Clock’s hands were set so close to midnight.
Nuclear war and climate change are two huge, complex topics that the Doomsday Clock has to distil into a single graphic. It’s a lot of heavy lifting for a metaphor born in an era when annual global emissions were just 13 percent of today’s storeys and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t even exist. Lumping together these two risks—and all the other ways mankind could mess up the planet—blurs the meaning of one of our most powerful symbols. Maybe it’s time to wind back the dial on the world’s most famous clock face.
One of the difficulties with representing climate change and nuclear war in the same graphic is that the two risks play out on completely different timescales. A ticking clock does a good job of representing how close we are to disaster right now, but each extra kilogram of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere is setting the stage for a disaster at some undefined point in the future. “Each year you continue to emit carbon dioxide more bad stuff is baked into the system,” says Raymond Pierrehumbert, a physics professor at the University of Oxford and one of the members of the Science and Security Board that sets the Doomsday Clock.
The risk of nuclear disaster tends to shift in more discrete steps. In 1991 the Doomsday Clock stood at 17 minutes to midnight—beyond the original 15-minute scale of the design. It was the furthest from the apocalypse the clock had ever been, thanks to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “The setting of the Bulletin Clock reflects our optimism that we are entering a new era,” wrote the Bulletin’s scientists at the time of the announcement.
It’s hard to draw such clear lines with climate change. On one hand, the world is facing a more secure future than if governments had taken no action on climate change. According to Climate Action Tracker, current policies have us on course for around 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. This level of warming will have devastating consequences, but it’s better than the situation we were facing in 2013 when existing policies had the world on course for 3.7 degrees of warming. Landmarks like the Paris Agreement and the US Inflation Reduction Act show that meaningful action on climate change is possible.