But at the same time, annual carbon emissions are still rising. While the future looks better, things are getting worse right now. This poses a conundrum for scientists setting the doomsday clock. Are they continuing to promise the future, or the present situation?
“It seems to me, and to many of us, that the needle should move a little bit forward toward the end of the world every year that we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” says Pierrehumbert. But you can only move the minute hand closer The number of midnights. Adding more increments adds nuance to the doomsday clock, but setting the clock to 99.4 seconds before midnight doesn’t quite accomplish what its original designers intended.
Counting down to midnight is an intuitive way to think about nuclear war. The world is either in nuclear war or it isn’t. There are nuances here—for example, tactical nuclear weapons are not the same as full-scale nuclear war—but on a very broad level, nuclear war, as the original Bulletin scientists believed, is a rather binary state of affairs. Climate change is much more subtle. Most scientists agree that there is no clear precipice of catastrophe when it comes to climate warming. Instead, a slow escalation of global catastrophe increases the likelihood of climate tipping points, sudden and irreversible changes to some climate systems.
Little is known about these high-impact, low-probability events, but they’re not the only way climate change can have serious impacts on Earth. As existential risk researcher Luke Kemp points out, a warmer world would be less resistant to other types of catastrophic risk. In a world of catastrophic levels of warming, it’s hard to imagine humanity recovering from a dire pandemic or nuclear war. Climate change itself is not just a doomsday risk – it is a risk multiplier that increases our vulnerability to events of all kinds.
“If you were starting from scratch, you might think of the climate problem as more like a thermometer,” Pierrehumbert said. But even this metaphor has its drawbacks. Does the temperature represent warming now, or what we are preparing for the future? Is there the equivalent of midnight temperature – a real point of no return? According to Pierrehumbert, global warming will render roughly half of humanity uninhabitable, which could be viewed as a climate-apocalyptic-like event. We’re not on track to get anywhere close to this level of warming, but as Pierrehumbert points out, the risk of climate change will never completely disappear as long as there are fossil fuels left to burn.
One of the downsides of the clock metaphor is that it can make us too preoccupied with the here and now, whatever the threat in question. “The clock doesn’t really tell how big the risk of a nuclear war is this year,” Pierrehumbert said. It’s designed to assess the underlying risk state that may take decades to play out. These are already complex, and climate change is like a multiplier for those risks—add that to the mix, and everything else becomes more uncertain and confusing for a long time to come.
Where does all this leave the Doomsday Clock? It remains a powerful reminder that self-inflicted disasters are never far away. But it also undercuts the complexities of climate change and the way risks spread and interpenetrate over time. From an age where we face a plethora of possible catastrophes (pandemics, rogue artificial intelligence, and a rapidly warming planet), the Doomsday Clock is a warning from a much simpler time.
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