Unwind the Doomsday Clock?
January 24, 2023 7:29 AM   Subscribe

SINCE 1947, THE Doomsday Clock has ticked away

Originally intended to convey how close the world is to nuclear war, the Doomsday Clock has expanded its remit in recent years.

(archival link)

... is there a temperature equivalent to midnight—a real point of no return? Pierrehumbert suggests that warming that would make the world uninhabitable for about half of humans could be considered a climate doomsday-like event. We’re not on track for anywhere near this amount of warming, but as Pierrehumbert points out, as long as there are fossil fuels left to burn, the risk of climate change never completely goes away.

Where does all this leave the Doomsday Clock? It remains a powerful reminder that self-inflicted disaster is never far away. But it also undercuts the complexity of climate change and the way that risks spread across time and bleed into one another. Viewed from a time when we face a multitude of possible catastrophes—pandemics, rogue AI, and a rapidly warming planet—the Doomsday Clock is a warning from a much simpler era.
posted by sammyo (29 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It is now ninety seconds to midnight, down from 100.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:38 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Hot take! (Maybe?) The doomsday clock is a relic that people only acknowledge for five minutes when it’s updated. I would support shutting it down but it has so little influence on the discourse you might as well keep it going.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:51 AM on January 24 [8 favorites]

Various previouslies
posted by briank at 9:08 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Having a "doomsday clock" perpetually at or around 90 seconds to midnight is a bit like having a fire alarm that goes off every day when there are no fires. It feels like a neverending false alarm.
posted by abucci at 9:38 AM on January 24 [18 favorites]

will someone keep track of the hot takes?

here's one: our capacity to appreciate the passage of time and existential threats is precisely human.

somewhere a moth dusts a surface and the stark message to other moths reads: "beware the light"
posted by elkevelvet at 9:50 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

If this clock were truly representing climate change it would already have gone past midnight, the climate change which is already locked in around the world must be at least equal to a couple of nuclear bombs going off.
posted by Lanark at 10:18 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

How many nuclear bombs have been detonated already, would you say?

Before watching this video, I would have said 200-300.
posted by jamjam at 10:31 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]

In March we're gonna realize that somebody forgot to switch over from Doomsday Daylight Time to Daylight Standard Time and that the earth was actually destroyed five months ago.
posted by mmcg at 11:49 AM on January 24 [20 favorites]

I find this thing clock thing stupid. That is all.
posted by Saucywench at 12:05 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

90 seconds to midnight just sounds wrong, it has one too many syllables.

Two Minutes to Midnight

posted by COD at 12:16 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]

It's a good question. Does the Doomsday Clock still work?

I remember learning about it back in the 1980s (GenX here), and each reset scared me.

Now... as abucci says, the repetition seems to have dulled impact.

And we know we need something to better inspire action on the climate crisis.
posted by doctornemo at 12:49 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

GenX here too, so this is part of the fabric for me...but yeah. there is something fundamentally different about the fear of nuclear annihilation, isn't there? the bomb blows, you are dead. it happens or it doesn't.

the climate crisis is so different. its this slow creep towards an unknown level of catastrophe. it can be put off because its not happening now, is it? (is it??) and hey, it won't be that bad, maybe...

the clock speaks of an immediacy people don't total suck at handling. but this long slow burndown is something we do really poorly. not sure what metaphor might work better (now that Ye Old Frogge in the Potte has been debunked).
posted by supermedusa at 1:36 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Seconding the reaction of dumb. What good is a 'clock' that doesn't change?
posted by Rash at 1:53 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

It is also weirdly disheartening to see people being all “The doomsday clock is past midnight for the climate”! Man, unless the planet is already doomed to become Venus in 50 years that metaphor is weird.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:54 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Its little brother, the debt clock, also mostly ignored
posted by chavenet at 2:08 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Seconding the reaction of dumb. What good is a 'clock' that doesn't change?

Well known to be right twice a day.
posted by chavenet at 2:09 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

After Trump lost the 2020 election, they didn't set the clock back from a hundred seconds to midnight. If it were me, I would have ALMOST decided the same thing. At the presentation, a guy would have come out, gently poked the minute hand, and declared that it was now a hundred and one seconds to midnight.
posted by BiggerJ at 2:46 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Its little brother, the debt clock, also mostly ignored

That's quite a display. They must not check the numbers often: silver is apparently $119 an ounce, but oil is $3.10 a barrel. If they're buying silver and selling oil, I'll take the lot. Also fun is the old-timey "US Imported Oil" ticker... like we don't export enough petroleum products to net over a million barrels a day positive trade.
posted by netowl at 3:31 PM on January 24

A rising thermometer would be a better and more effective metaphor except that it isn’t one.
posted by Phanx at 3:39 PM on January 24

The doomsday clock seemed like some archaic relic when I learned about it in school, and I'm old.
posted by ryanrs at 6:15 PM on January 24

I've never disliked the doomsday clock per se, but we've far scarier threats so I'm really not worried about nuclear war.

"Is It Time to Call Time on the Doomsday Clock?"

Yes, I do think nuclear war could end modern society because our supply chains look so fragile, but overall climate change looks worse than nuclear war in every respect.

We already release far more soot from forest fires than appears in nuclear winter models, so either nuclear winter is grossly exaggerated, or else we're already in one, and its compensating for some really nasty locked in warming.

James Anderson says climate change shall create a wetter stratosphere that destroys the ozone layer, aka nuclear summer.

"We’re not on track for anywhere near this amount of warming [that would make the world uninhabitable for about half of humans]"

We're likely headed beyond +4°C because the +3°C estimate by the IPCC excludes tipping points. Will Steffen estimates carrying capacity around one billion humans by then, in part due to the tropics being uninhabitable by humans.

As an aside, Mont Blanc by Quiet Hollers is a beautiful song about nuclear war.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:24 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Pierrehumbert suggests that warming that would make the world uninhabitable for about half of humans could be considered a climate doomsday-like event. We’re not on track for anywhere near this amount of warming

This is false. I feel like this is basically the only thing left worth saying on Metafilter at this point. And most of my comments are increasingly mispelled attempts to keep ringing thst alarm.

Our current CO2 equivalent (550 ppm ) is above the highest ipcc scenarios for this year and double that of pre-industrial (not just 1880) ghg levels.
Whether we call that highest scenario RCP "business as usual", or "the worst case scenario" or "a scenario whose ghg concentractions are too high to be acheivable", we are currently above it, and natural reservoirs of ghg are starting to leak, some carbon sinks are becoming sources, others are underperforming and we are increasing not just the concentration of CO2 and other ghg's we are also increasing the amount that we are increasing the concentration. And we are building more fossil fuel combusting equipment and powerplants

French oil giant Total was caught on hot mic admitting their cop negotiation calculations had 3.5C

If our current actual trajectory, instead of our promises are modeled, the outcome by 2100 is at least between 3.5 and 5.5, and accelerates past that the next century. Of course that depends on what humans do, what natural reservoirs do, how the climate actually works, and which non-linear systems/feedbacks actually are tripped. The 3.5 to 5.5 assumes none.

The average heating alone will drop crop yeilds substantially (30-50%) even as global pop rises (if it can) toward 10 to 12.5 billion (80 million more a year and that number rising and intensity of our diets for land and animals increasing too). The eradic weather will juice the odds against harvests.

Many years we will continue to feed ( and starve) roughly the numbers we do now or more. Some year we will get unlucky and falter.

3.5C the low estimate is for avg surface land and sea. Conduction and thermal mass mean sea warms slower, land faster. 6C increase on land, where we and our crops live. That land average is coasts and continental interiors (inland 20-60 miles where most of our food is grown) 6.5C. Warming is more at night and winter than summer. Summer warming 5.5C. Warming is more toward the poles and less at the equator. warming st the average bread basket latitud 5.6C

5.6C average summer baseline. 10F. Crops that grow at 85-95F stop growing and many die at 95-105F. Indeed find any staple crop viable at 105F average. Oh, but then there's heat waves.

It was midnight hours ago but the salesmen and conmen and oilmen promised us a time machine.

Save as much as you can. Avoid as much additional destruction, vote lobby and protest. Donate, boycott, divest. Baricade, sabotage, fight in self defense. Run for something, run for your lives. It was foolish and immoral to kill ourselves this way. It is abominable to take down most mammals, amphibians, forests, fisheries ecosystems this way.

Pollution is poison, if someone tries to poison you for profit, [redacted].
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 8:36 PM on January 24 [8 favorites]

I'm curious, how many people today who dismiss the Doomsday Clock are saying so, with full awareness and cognizance that the program was co-founded by Albert Einstein?
posted by polymodus at 10:49 PM on January 24

I posted this because I'm aware of the history and significance, but struggle with how the message for all the dangers is effectively communicated, not especially for this community, we get it and think deeply about all the stuff, but to all the folks that are not listening. Is it effective to have a dramatic 15 second spot on the morning news? Does having an imminent 10 second threat for the last 50+ years get an actual message across or just ooh ohh scary, like a monster movie boo? Maybe, not much get through to many.
posted by sammyo at 6:18 AM on January 25

I'm totally cynical about the nuclear Doomsday Clock. We simply don't know enough to make that sort of estimate.

If we could look at a thousand civilizations that had nuclear wars, we could be specific about risks.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:37 AM on January 25

in "1000 burning suns" as the author reviews what the manhattan project scientist thought... they though about deterence and negotiation, they thought the race for nukes was against an opponent ahead or even with them.etc".

Scientists are smart in their fields because the point of science education IS to teach new scientists what the others have learned and the methods and how to explore further.

That is why scientists are dumb ar politics. .Physicists built nukes and gave them to... a store clerk, lawyers, a game-show host, fail-sons, actors, failed and successful businessmen etc.

Because the purpose of political education is to deceieve you, to distract you and to make you an instrument of the power hungry and vain.

Scientists peered past the everyday world to see invisible atoms and their workings, then got tricked by the mural on the police station wall.

Thats why they try to improve science communication and public awareness as if that was what governed politics. Its an application of engineer's disease.

The doomsday clock is itrelevant. You could convince the public about the threat until they believe you and support peace at levels like the public supports not-polluting, having health care, raising taxes on rich people, reducing immigration (wrong but popular) etc... and it would effect nothing.

An aware frog still gets stung by the scorpion.

End the doomsday clock, stop handing empowering technology to a doomsday cult of greed, hate, superstition and supremacists.

Power down.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:20 AM on January 25

Yup. Just put a strip of duct tape over the Check Engine light. That'll take care of it.
posted by MrVisible at 5:05 PM on January 25 [5 favorites]

If you look at the sidebar the BotAS also considers biological threats and "disruptive tech" in its clock-moving decision process. I tend to agree with the Wired article, that's just too much Debbie Doomerism and distracts from the original goal of tracking the world's failure to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons. Maybe revert the clock face to a peace symbol to hearken back to its original meaning.
posted by credulous at 1:24 PM on January 26

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