The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has updated the iconic Doomsday Clock. We’re now five figurative minutes
from the end of the world.
This is a worsening of the global situation since 2010, when we stood a comparatively comfortable six minutes from annihilation, and marks a return to the same level of danger the world faced in 2007. It is in effect an admission by the Bulletin that their optimism in the final years of the double-oh decade was misplaced. In electing to move the clock forward by a minute, the Bulletin noted, “The provisional developments of 2 years ago [when it the clock was moved to six-minutes-to-midnight] have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007. Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leads [sic] are failing to change business as usual.”
There’s a few problems with this. For starters: If it’s “business as usual,” why move the clock? Business as usual suggests the clock is perfectly placed, unless the Bulletin feels it dropped the ball in 2010. More to the point, though — maybe climate change and nuclear warfare are something that we ought to treat somewhat differently? If the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wants to muse about the danger posed by climate change, fine. But pick a different symbol. It’s not even hard to figure out. Hello, atomic scientists? A thermometer, maybe?
Nuclear warfare and climate change are about as different as you can imagine (A lot of people don’t even accept man-made climate change is a problem, but for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that it’s real, and as bad as the alarmists say it is). Nuclear warfare would be a deliberate act that would yield instant, measurable results. If big enough, it could essentially stop human civilization in its tracks, resetting us technologically by hundreds of years and socially, perhaps thousands. It would be possible to direct the progress of a nuclear war, even to win one — it would be equally possible to lose control of such a conflict and lose it, but at least it would be a planned event, with phased escalation, human command-and-control and the possibility of one side in the war deciding to surrender. It could even be, in theory, a net-positive (though destructive) thing, if a pre-emptive assault with nuclear weapons either prevented a worse war, or brought one to an early end.
Man-made climate change, in contrast, assuming it takes the form presented to us by Al Gore and the like, is an unintentional byproduct of otherwise productive human activity and success. It cannot be simply avoided, as unlike an exchange of missiles, it is the normal status quo, at least for the Industrial Age. It would not be sudden, with well defined effects, but creeping and slow. There wouldn’t be a day where we’d all go, “Ooh, the Earth has now warmed.” It would be a process, not an event. And in order to stop the process, you also need to stop a whole lot of otherwise good things. IE: The economy.
And, unlike with a nuclear war, it’s hard to define when climate change would begin. The entire idea of the Doomsday Clock is that it’s supposed to say how close we are to nuking each other — at least that was the idea between its inception in 1947 and 2007, when it started including climate change as part of the threat assessment. It’s hard enough getting people to agree that climate change is happening. Maybe it is — it’s certainly plausible that human activity is altering the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere in such a way as to trap more thermal radiation than was previously the case. But if that is indeed happening, I’d love for someone at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to explain what constitutes “midnight” for climate change, as opposed to 15-minutes-to, or three-minutes-to, and so on and so on. We can’t possibly quantify what we can’t even agree with certainty is happening, or what’s happening if anything is, and what will happen when, or what it means.
With nukes, midnight is good. It’s stark. It has resonance. With climate change, it doesn’t really make sense. Symbols need to be punchy to work. This one is just confusing.
And, to be brutal about it, even if climate change’s worst possibilities were to occur, it would never seem as devastating as a smouldering city, or an entire nation or continent or region left in radioactive ruins. It would be miserable for many people, and the weather events and droughts would be terribly destructive, but we’ve seen those things before, and survived them.
Nuclear warfare and climate change are both things worth talking about. By mixing them together on the same Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are needlessly confusing two separate issues. Climate change may eventually present a serious danger to mankind, but nuclear warfare presents a verified, quantifiable danger now — just ask Israel and Iran, or Pakistan or India, or North Korea and anyone its cherubic child-leader decides is out to get him today.
The Doomsday Clock gave good service for 60 years as a symbol of mankind’s refusal to accept that aiming thousands of hydrogen bombs at each other was, if given a bit of thought, a bad idea. It should be returned to that role. Dragging in the climate change controversy accomplishes nothing, and certainly won’t help keep the planet cool.