But at the same time, annual carbon emissions continue to rise. While the future looks better, things are worse now. This presents a puzzle to the scientists who installed the Doomsday Clock. Do they go for future promises or the situation right now?
“In my opinion, and in the opinion of many of us, every year that we continue to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the arrow should click a little, bringing the end of the world closer,” Piergumber says. But there are only so many times you can move the minute hand closer to midnight. Adding more increments would increase the nuance of the Doomsday Clock, but setting the clock to 99.4 seconds before midnight isn’t exactly what its original developers were aiming for.
Countdown to midnight is an intuitive way to think about nuclear war. Either the world is in a state of nuclear war or it isn’t. There is a nuance here – tactical nuclear weapons, for example, are not the same as full-scale nuclear war – but on a very broad level, nuclear war, as the Bulletin scientists imagined it, was a rather binary state of affairs. Climate change is much more subtle. Most scientists agree that when it comes to global warming, there is no clear brink of disaster. Instead, there is a slow increase in global catastrophes, as well as an increased likelihood of climate change pointswhere certain climate systems change suddenly and irreversibly.
These high-impact, low-probability events are poorly understood, but they are not the only ways climate change could have a major impact on the planet. As Existential Risk Researcher Luke Kemp noted, a much warmer world is less resilient to other types of catastrophic risks. It is harder to imagine humanity recovering from a terrible pandemic or nuclear war in a world with catastrophic levels of warming. Climate change itself is not only a doomsday risk, but also a risk multiplier that increases our vulnerability to any event.
“If you were starting from scratch, you might think that for the climate you would have something like a thermometer,” Piergumber says. But even this metaphor has its drawbacks. Will temperatures mean warming now or what we have in store for the future? And is there a temperature equivalent to midnight, a real point of no return? Pierumber suggests that the warming that will make the world uninhabitable for about half of the people can be considered an event similar to climate doomsday. We are not on the path to such warming, but as Piergumbert points out, as long as there are fossil fuels to burn, the risk of climate change will never completely disappear.
One drawback of the clock metaphor, regardless of the threat in question, is that it forces us to focus too much on the here and now. “The clock is not really meant to show how risky a nuclear war is going to be this year,” Pierrumbert says. This should be an assessment of the fundamental state of the risks, which may take decades to materialize. They’re complex enough already, and climate change is sort of a multiplier of those risks – add it to the mix and everything else gets a little more uncertain and chaotic over long periods of time.
Where will all this lead to the Doomsday Clock? It remains a powerful reminder that self-inflicted disaster is never far off. But it also undermines the complexity of climate change and how risks spread over time and flow into each other. Considered at a time when we are facing a multitude of possible catastrophes – pandemics, rogue AI and a rapidly warming planet – the Doomsday Clock is a warning from a much simpler era.