Have you ever stopped to wonder about your last day on Earth? How about the last day of the Earth itself? Do you believe the end is near? What is “the end,” really? Is it already in motion?
Well, according to a group of scientists and experts, humans are closer to the end than we’ve ever been. Every year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which formed 77 years ago in the wake of World War II, tells us what time it is. The group updates what it calls the Doomsday Clock, and once the hands touch midnight, boom! Humanity has run out of time. Right now, humanity has got 100 seconds to midnight, per the Bulletin’s announcement Thursday.
Welcome to The Frontline, where time is of the essence. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Though fear of nuclear fallout gave birth to the Doomsday Clock, its creators now consider climate change alongside other risks to our species. But can seconds really capture the ever-evolving nature of the climate crisis? What good is a ticking clock for the communities that can’t hear its alarms? For the communities already obliterated by climate disaster? These days may feel darker and darker, but midnight has not yet arrived. There’s still time to act.
In 1947, the world was a completely different place. The U.S. military had dropped two atomic bombs onto Japan just two years prior. The world was still reeling from the significance of that attack. More than 100,000 people were immediately killed. The radiation exposure killed tens of thousands more in the years to come. The force of such a weapon was not yet known to humanity. Its reality was a shockwave to us all—but especially to the scientists who helped develop the weapon in the first place.
Many didn’t know what they were building until it was too late. They wrote letters and held debates with the hopes that the weapon they had developed wouldn’t be used to kill people. As history shows, they failed. After all was said and done, they took action into their own hands. Many of those scientists went on to form the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The Doomsday Clock was their warning to the world. The atomic bombs they built would not be the last: Today, more than 9,000 warheads exist.
However, even during those dark days of foreboding nuclear war, the clock sat at seven minutes to midnight. The latest update doesn’t move the clock any closer than it was last year, but it remains at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it’s ever been. The climate crisis has a lot to do with that, but so does the ongoing threat of nuclear war, biological threats (like COVID-19), and cyber attacks. And while it may seem positive that the clock hasn’t inched closer to midnight, there’s nothing good about being 100 seconds away.
“This is closer than we’ve been during even the worst parts of the Cold War,” said Raymond Pierrehumbert, the University of Oxford’s Halley professor of physics who sits on the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. “And that’s really dangerous. The fact we haven’t been able to move back from that, that should make people quake in their boots.”
Some might argue the clock should’ve moved closer to midnight this year given the grave reality of the climate crisis. Global greenhouse gas emissions actually increased in 2021 despite the drop we saw in 2020 from the pandemic. However, the Bulletin has to be careful whenever it alters the clock. Changes over a single year aren’t always enough. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise over the next few years, the Bulletin will have to adjust the clock accordingly.
“Although things are bad now in climate, they could get a lot worse.”
And though humanity sits on the precipice of apocalypse, we can still avoid it. That might feel impossible to those whose lives are already spiraling through climate calamity as floodwaters or wildfires reach their homes—but Pierrehumbert cautions against the fatalistic notion that doomsday has already arrived. There’s a world of difference between a world that warms 1.5 degrees Celsius and one that warms 2 degrees Celsius despite the suffering climate change is already bringing.
“Although things are bad now in climate, they could get a lot worse,” Pierrehumbert said.
There’s plenty to be done to avoid the worst, but civic society must pressure government officials. Decarbonization is paramount to keeping doomsday at bay. That requires ending the financing and extraction of fossil fuels, as well as countries in the Global North offering more financial support to those in the Global South. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is clear about these necessary steps in its list of recommendations. What Pierrehumbert suggests is for us to get in the streets and join political movements to demand change. We must become a force politicians can’t ignore.
Otherwise, we will all slowly dip into night, swallowed by the darkness of midnight. It won’t happen overnight. It’ll be as it has been: slow-moving and insidious, taking some lives then others. And before we know it, our world will be an eternal doomsday.
Each year our leaders fail to implement structural change and cut greenhouse gas emissions, that never-ending nightmare nears. Let’s stop them before it’s too late. The clock stops now. Let’s rewind its hands and welcome the light—on the streets, on our feeds, and wherever feels right.
Correction, 1/24/2022, 11:30 a.m. ET: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists formed 77 years ago, not 75 as previously stated. The Doomsday Clock came later, so it is 75 years old.