How close is humanity to destruction? Not very far, according to the Doomsday Clock, which has been metaphorically ticking since 1947. Its hands now sit at 90 seconds to midnight—closer than they’ve ever been.
This morning, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the clock based on how close it believes the world is to disaster, with midnight symbolizing doomsday. The group takes into account factors ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change.
“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality,” says Rachel Bronson, who oversees the Bulletin, in a statement. “Ninety seconds to midnight is the closest the clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly.”
The clock’s new position is due “largely but not exclusively” to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has increased the risk of nuclear escalation, says the Bulletin in a statement. The group also attributes its decision to various ongoing concerns, including the climate crisis and the “breakdown of global norms and institutions” needed to navigate “advancing technologies” and biological threats like Covid-19.
Conceived in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the clock was originally an analogy for the accelerating threat of nuclear war during the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The group of scientists behind the original clock included some who had participated in the Manhattan Project, which created the world’s first nuclear weapons.
Artist Martyl Langsdorf designed the first version of the clock. It was set at seven minutes to midnight because, Langsdorf said, “it looked good to my eye,” per the Bulletin’s website.
Since then, the Bulletin has been regularly resetting the clock to warn the public about “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” writes the organization. “It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.”
Twice a year, the bulletin’s science and security board, composed of experts on nuclear weapons and climate change, meets to deliberate. The board considers factors such as the number of nuclear weapons in the world and the rate of sea level rise, then convenes to make its judgment, which is reflected on a physical version of the clock that lives at the University of Chicago.
The clock is “not a model spitting out a number,” Bronson tells the Washington Post’s Ellen Francis. “It’s a judgment among experts about whether humanity is safer or at greater risk” compared with the clock’s setting in previous years.
The clock’s hands can move backwards, forwards or stay the same. They were farthest from midnight—a record 17 minutes—in 1991, a decision informed by post-Cold War optimism. The last time the clock changed was in 2020, when the Bulletin set the hands at 100 seconds to midnight.
Some critics see this process as arbitrary or useless. As Anders Sandberg, an expert on global catastrophic risk at the University of Oxford, wrote in the Conversation in 2015, the Doomsday Clock “is not a measurement of time, probability or distance.” Instead, he argued, “it is a measure of the ‘strong feeling of urgency’ the people who run it have when watching the world-system.”
“Doomsday predictions are rarely informative,” he continued, “but good ones can be directive: They urge us to fix the world.”
That’s the takeaway many of the clock’s supporters have: A sense of urgency, they argue, can spur action.
“The Doomsday Clock is sounding an alarm for the whole of humanity,” says Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, in a statement. “We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and liveable planet. From cutting carbon emissions to strengthening arms control treaties and investing in pandemic preparedness, we know what needs to be done.”