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Beyond Doom and Gloom: The Doomsday Clock and Climate Change

One hundred seconds to midnight: that’s what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveiled as the latest reading on the Doomsday Clock on January 23. In their official statement, the Bulletin cited “[a]n insufficient response to an increasingly threatened climate” as a reason for the proximity to catastrophe, in addition to the threats of nuclear war and other disruptive technologies that the Clock has tracked for decades.

The challenge of climate change is no doubt a crisis; if we are to avoid its worst consequences, we need large-scale action now. But a ticking time bomb may not be the most helpful metaphor.

The Doomsday Clock works as a metaphor for the threat of nuclear destruction because nuclear weapons could feasibly wreak worldwide destruction in seconds, and the threat level can vary widely depending on the current geopolitical situation. But as a representation of the threat of destruction from climate change, the Clock fails. 

If the threat of climate change is a single point in time, we’re already past it. Wildfires, hurricanes, bleached coral reefs, and rising sea levels are happening right now. Disasters, extreme weather events and species loss are not waiting for us to cross an invisible emissions barrier – they’re already here.

It’s also not true that if global warming reaches some threshold, or if we fail to act by a certain date, that all will be destroyed. Climate doom will not be unleashed as the second hand strikes midnight. The notion that the world will violently burn to a crisp if we fail to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 or 2°C, is misleading and dangerously discouraging. The reality is that every bit of progress we make is important.  Every 0.01°C of warming averted will have an impact on the environment and on real lives. The 1.5 - 2°C increase cited as a maximum in the Paris Agreement is not a rigid boundary that will mean success if we meet it; conversely, if global temperatures go above that number, the Earth will not fall off a climatic cliff.

The climate crisis will not, cannot be a matter of simple success or failure, because let’s face it: in some ways, we have already failed. Communities and lives have been threatened by and even lost to floods and fires; forests and oceans have already been decimated. But we have also already achieved real successes. The U.S. alone now produces almost five times as much renewable electricity as it did in 2009, and 40 times more solar. Cities, states, and companies are making commitments to sustainability and backing up their commitments with action. The climate strikes last year aroused the collective energy of young people all over the world. We can celebrate these steps in the right direction without diminishing the gravity of the task before us.

The climate crisis will be marked by a combination of shortfalls and victories for decades to come. There won’t be a “midnight” of climate apocalypse, nor will there be a single V-Day for when we defeat climate change. The clock will keep turning. The great and important work yet to come will be with us for a long time, accompanied persistently by our hopes and discouragements, no matter how far we progress or fall behind.

Photo: The Doomsday Clock, which was set at 100 seconds to midnight this January. Credit: Ryanicus Girraficus via Wikipedia Commons.