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Doomsday clock creators: “We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity”

The Doomsday Clock is set two minutes from midnight. Here’s why we should be worried.

Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Are we dancing on the brink of human extinction? The Doomsday Clock says yes.

Every year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the team behind the Doomsday Clock, updates its symbolic clock to reflect the risks facing humanity.

In 2018, the clock ticked up to two minutes to midnight — as close as it has ever been to the end of the world, reflecting the increasing threats from climate change, nuclear war, emerging technologies, President Trump’s diplomatic brinksmanship, and the political divisions that make it more challenging to solve any of these.

In 2019, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists kept the clock there.

“We have not moved the clock hands from the position of last year,” Jerry Brown, the former governor of California and chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said at the press conference announcing where the clock would be set for 2019. “The fact that the hands did not move is bad news indeed.”

The team emphasized that the fact that the clock didn’t move shouldn’t be taken as a sign of stability — just the opposite. Instead, it reflects a “new abnormal” that we can’t afford to get used to.

“We’re playing Russian roulette with humanity,” said Brown.

What might kill us?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by researchers who worked on the atomic bomb. It publishes research on “manmade existential threats such as nuclear war, climate change, and disruptive technologies.”

All these threats feature in its assessment of how close we are to midnight, and in speeches and an accompanying press release, the Bulletin highlighted how they interact with one another. Political instability, a lack of trust, and an age of disinformation erode the consensus needed to prevent nuclear proliferation, to achieve action on climate change, and to unite in planning for the governance of emerging technologies.

“In the nuclear realm, the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and announced it would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), grave steps towards a complete dismantlement of the global arms control process,” the organization warns.

“The blindness and stupidity of the politicians and their consultants is truly shocking in the face of nuclear catastrophe and danger,” said Brown at the press conference. “The probability is mounting that there will be some kind of nuclear incident that will kill millions, if not initiating a nuclear exchange that will kill billions. It’s late, and it’s getting later, and we’ve got to wake people up.”

On climate change, the Bulletin summed it up like this: “The key measure of improvement on the climate front is the extent of progress toward bringing global net carbon dioxide emissions to zero. On this measure, the countries of the world have failed dismally.”

Susan Solomon, a professor of environmental studies at MIT, delivered the portion of the Bulletin’s statement that focused on climate change. She warned that not only have we made little progress on the needed emission reductions, but climate denial has maintained its popularity among many of the politicians who should be addressing it. “We’ve moved into a path that will make our future much more dangerous,” she concluded.

Emerging technologies, too, look increasingly threatening. “Chaos reigns in much of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends,” writes the Bulletin, and that’s interfering with our ability to address every threat in front of us.

“The world faces other major threats from disruptive technologies; developments in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and cyber sabotage are of particular concern. The velocity of change across these and other technological fronts is extremely high; the international effort to manage these rapid advances has been, to date, grossly insufficient.”

The Doomsday Clock isn’t meant to make us feel, well, doomed

The Doomsday Clock doesn’t just move forward — it can also move back.

In 1953, it came as close as two minutes to midnight for the first time. In subsequent years, it moved backward, as better policy and better communications meant, in the scientists’ assessment, that the world was a little safer. In 1995, with the Cold War over, we were briefly as far as 17 minutes from midnight.

We still have the power to address all the problems the Bulletin highlights, and we’ve been this close to the brink before and successfully managed risks.

“There is nothing hopeless or predestined about the future,” the new announcement reminds us. “The Bulletin resolutely believes that human beings can manage the dangers posed by the technology that humans create.”

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