Every year, a group of experts in nuclear, climate, and technology fields gather to determine the position of the Doomsday Clock. The Doomsday Clock, presented by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is a symbolic representation of humanity’s proximity to catastrophe. It measures the collective danger we face in minutes and seconds to midnight, with the goal of avoiding the strike of 12.
In 2023, the expert group moved the clock closest it has ever been to midnight, at 90 seconds. On January 23, 2024, the Doomsday Clock was unveiled again, revealing that the hands remain in the same precarious position.
While no change may bring relief, it also highlights the ongoing risk of catastrophe. The question is, how close are we to catastrophe and why?
The creation of the atomic bomb in 1945 marked a new era where humanity had the power to destroy itself. In response to this threat, Albert Einstein and other scientists established the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to communicate the dangers of the nuclear age to the public. Two years later, the Bulletin published its first magazine featuring a clock on the cover, with the minute hand just seven minutes from midnight.
Since then, the clock has been adjusted 25 times in response to military buildups, technological advancements, and geopolitical dynamics during the Cold War. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear risk did not diminish. Additionally, new threats such as climate change, biological threats, and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have emerged.
The latest setting of the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight reflects four key sources of risk: nuclear weapons, climate change, biological threats, and AI advancements. Ongoing conflicts involving nuclear-weapon states, the worsening impacts of climate change, the global impacts of biological threats like COVID-19, and the potential risks associated with AI all contribute to the precarious state of the world.
Critics argue that the Doomsday Clock is subjective and imprecise, lacking a quantitative or transparent methodology. However, the clock serves as a metaphor and symbol rather than a risk assessment. It captures the sense of urgency and draws attention to the complex and overwhelming global catastrophic threats we face.
While there are better ways to assess risk, such as national risk assessments conducted by governments or reports like the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report, the Doomsday Clock should inspire these efforts rather than replace them. It serves as a powerful image that encourages understanding and assessment of the greatest threats humanity faces.