But at the same time, annual carbon emissions are still increasing. While the future looks better, now things are still getting worse. This presents a conundrum for the scientists who established the Doomsday Clock. Do they continue to commit in the future, or the situation now?
“In my view, and in the view of many of us, every year we continue to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the needle moves a little closer to the end of the world,” says Pierrehumbert. But there are only so many times you can move the minute hand closer to midnight. Adding more increments does increase the nuance of the Doomsday Clock, but setting the clock at 99.4 seconds to midnight doesn’t really have the power its original designers aimed for.
The countdown to midnight is a visual way to think about nuclear war. Either the world is in a nuclear war, or it isn’t. There’s nuance here — a tactical nuclear weapon, for example, isn’t the same as a full-blown nuclear war — but at a very broad level, nuclear war as the Bulletin scientists originally thought it was. it is a rather binary state. Climate change is more nuanced. Most scientists agree that there is no clear disaster line when it comes to climate warming. Instead, global disasters are increasing slowly as well as the likelihood of their occurrence climate tipping pointwhere certain climate systems change suddenly and irreversibly.
These high-impact, low-probability events are still poorly understood, but they’re not the only way that climate change could have serious effects on the planet. As existential risk researcher Luke Kemp noted, a much warmer world would be less resilient to other kinds of catastrophic risks. It is hard to imagine humanity recovering from a terrible pandemic or a nuclear war in a world with catastrophic levels of warming. Climate change itself is not only an apocalyptic risk, but also a risk factor that increases our vulnerability to all kinds of events.
“If you start from scratch, you can think about climate, you get something more like a thermometer,” says Pierrehumbert. But even that metaphor has its downsides. Will the temperature represent warming now or what we have in the future? And is there a temperature equivalent to midnight—a point of no return? Pierrehumbert suggests that warming will make uninhabitable world for about half of people could be seen as a doomsday-like climate event. We’re not on track for anywhere near this warming, but as Pierrehumbert has pointed out, as long as fossil fuels remain to burn, the risk of climate change will never completely disappear. whole.
One downside of the clock metaphor, regardless of the threat under consideration, is that it causes us to focus a little too much on the here and now. “The clock doesn’t really tell the risk of a nuclear war this year,” says Pierrehumbert. It means that an assessment of the underlying risk situation can take decades to resolve. These risks are inherently complex, and climate change is like an exponential for these risks — add it to the mix and everything else gets a little more volatile and chaotic in the long run. .
Where does all this leave the Doomsday Clock? It remains a powerful reminder that self-inflicted disaster is never far away. But it also reduces the complexity of climate change and the ways in which risks spread over time and flow into each other. Considered from a time when we were faced with a myriad of possible disasters—pandemics, rogue artificial intelligence, and rapidly warming planets—the Doomsday Clock is a warning from a much simpler times.
Update January 24, 2023 10:30 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to reflect the movement of the Doomsday Clock hands on January 24, 2023.