With tension building between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine, new variants of COVID-19 testing the effectiveness of vaccines, and only a slow response to climate change by most accounts front of mind, we’re left to ask: Is humanity now safer or at greater risk?
The symbolic measure known as the “Doomsday Clock” continues to hover at 100 seconds to midnight, unmoved from last year and 2020, when the deadly pandemic started its surge around the globe. But a stalled clock is not a chance to exhale, says the committee behind its publication. The reading matches the closest distance to midnight, meaning the most worrisome, in the report’s 75-year history.
Each year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists decides whether to nudge the clock closer to midnight, or the hour of “doom.” The panel of mostly scientists, risk and security experts, including 13 Nobel laureates, gauges the state of the globe’s population in key areas such as nuclear and other conflict risk, public health, climate change and the impact of disruptive technologies.
Last year, the clock also stood at 100 seconds to midnight, matching the level of risk assigned in 2020 when the globe saw the first signs that a devastating pandemic was taking shape. That’s the closest to midnight in the history of this symbol. A mutating COVID-19 was a key point of worry to these risk-watchers in 2021, as was the the early-January attack on the U.S. Capitol and any threat of violence associated with it.
“Steady is not good news,” said Sharon Squassoni, the panel’s science and security board co-chair and a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
“In the current environment where we have neither arms race stability, nor tension stability, tensions over Ukraine are ominous, and with China, efforts to craft a strategic stability are in their infancy,” she said.
During a press conference Wednesday, President Biden threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with sanctions “never seen” if Russia moves with force on Ukraine.
Squassoni and other speakers also called out the ongoing buildup of nuclear arms in China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. China, for one, has argued that it is responding to U.S. moves.
Meanwhile, on climate change, Bulletin members said the world risks rhetorical progress that far outweighs action.
“There was hope that in the recovery from the COVID crisis, the world could build back better, and that part of that would be making progress towards decarbonization, but that has not happened to any great extent,” said Raymond Pierrehumbert, Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, who has worked on U.N. climate reports.
“Investment in fossil fuel production
proceeds at pace and far from declining carbon dioxide emissions have resumed,” he said. “Political paralysis in the United States Senate has prevented the U.S. from taking the leadership role on climate that it needs to take, in particular has prevented the kind of key investments needed.”
Biden said Wednesday he may have to split climate change proposals from the beefy Build Back Better spending bill that has all but stalled in a tightly contested Congress. Some $500 billion earmarked for home solar, EV-buying incentives and more is meant to accompany infrastructure spending intended to add offshore wind and flip the federal vehicle fleet to electric power.
Still, the Chicago-based Bulletin is optimistic about technological advances to mitigate existential risks and push toward common good, Squassoni said.
For 75 years, the annual Doomsday Clock, which has its roots with the Manhattan Project, has acted as a metaphor for how close humanity is to self-annihilation. But since 1947, it has also served as a call-to-action to reverse the hands, which have moved backwards before, the panel says.
The clock stood 17 minutes away from midnight at the end of the Cold War, its greatest, or least worrisome, distance to date.