Humanity remains closer to global catastrophe than ever before. That’s the stark message from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who have kept the Doomsday Clock’s annual setting unchanged at 100 seconds to midnight – the nearest it has been in the 75 years since American artist Martyl Langsdorf created it in 1947.

“Leaders around the world must immediately commit themselves to renewed cooperation in the many ways and venues available for reducing existential risk,” the Bulletin announced recently. “Citizens of the world can and should organise to demand that their leaders do so – and quickly. The doorstep of doom is no place to loiter.”

The Doomsday Clock is one of the most famous symbols in international politics and science, but also one of the most misunderstood. It is not designed simply to be an assessment of the risks facing the world, and it doesn’t respond to every short-term fluctuation and international crisis in real time (indeed, it didn’t even shift during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world ever came to Cold War nuclear annihilation, because the crisis was resolved before the Bulletin’s board could meet to discuss its ramifications.) The clock is also designed to tell us how well humanity is responding to those risks.

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and were concerned that the nuclear technology they had developed could be disastrous if used improperly. Albert Einstein himself established the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors and appointed as the first chairman J Robert Oppenheimer, who had upon seeing the first successful nuclear test quoted a line from the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The twin elements of a launch countdown and an apocalypse informed Langsdorf’s design of a clock nearing midnight, and that iconography – simple, powerful and transcending language – has burned a hole in the public consciousness ever since.

That danger is certainly more complex now than it has ever been before. For the clock’s first appearance 40 years or so, it concentrated entirely on the nuclear threat: two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the US and USSR had exploded thermonuclear weapons; 12 minutes in 1972, after the superpowers had signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty; back to three minutes in 1984 as Ronald Reagan intensified the arms race; and finally a full 17 minutes in 1991, when the USSR was disbanded and the Cold War ended.

The nuclear threat may not be as piquant now as it was then but the prospect of even a localised war turning nuclear remains a constant worry.

And the clock now takes into account two other factors, which were either distant or non-existent in those Cold War days: climate change and disruptive technologies. Climate change was officially added as a consideration in 2007, and 15 years on from that, it’s clear that the international response has been inadequate, most recently at Cop26.

Disruptive technology includes AI, biological weapons and nanotechnology – and the clock can reflect their advancement. As ever, technology is a morally inert tool, but its applications can be positive or negative depending on how it’s used.

That the clock has been closest to midnight during the Covid-19 pandemic is no coincidence, even though the connection is not a direct one. “Covid-19 will not obliterate civilisation,” the Bulletin said, “and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organisations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers – including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare – that could threaten civilisation in the near future.”

SJ Beard, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, said: “Covid-19 could have been a crisis that pulled governments together to make all of us safer, but it was not. It’s hard to see how things could improve significantly without yet more crises and disasters to finally spur us into action.”

The biggest question, of course, is this. At a time when we’ve seen the limitations of polling and modelling exposed again and again, why should we believe what the Doomsday Clock is telling us? The Bulletin does not reveal its methodology and does not explain how it reaches its conclusions, other than to say that its Science and Security Board of 13 men and six women, many of them Nobel laureates, meets twice a year to discuss global events in a deliberative manner.

But to equate the clock with the kind of pandemic modelling that Sage and others have been doing is to compare apples and oranges on two counts. The first is that the clock is neither forecast nor model: it’s a snapshot, and if it influences public policy (which it definitely aims to do globally), it does so in broad, long-term ways, rather than short-term policy measures.

The second is that pandemic modelling usually offers several different scenarios. The clock does not give various options and does not lend itself to spin. It picks a time and explains why.

No matter how alarming that time may seem, it’s crucial to remember something which Langsdorf baked into her original design: that the clock can move back as well as forwards, and it can do so not merely because leaders may make wise decisions but also because citizens can ensure political responsibility by mobilising, engaging and exerting public pressure.

This may seem counter-intuitive at a time when the threats the clock is enumerating are more complex than ever. Imagine standing in 1992, the Cold War won and Francis Fukuyama confidently proclaiming “the end of history” .

Now fast-forward another 30 years of change faster and more profound than we’ve ever known. The 2052 Doomsday Clock will almost certainly have to take into account transhumanism, widespread AI, lunar and Martian terraforming, widespread climate emergencies and consequent social unrest, etc. From this distance these seem daunting. But the Bulletin’s ethos has always been that, if mankind has created these problems, then mankind can fix them. And for our sakes, we need them to be right about that.

The Daily Telegraph

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