Jan 27, 2021 - Technology

Doomsday Clock stays at 100 seconds to midnight

Photo of the 2021 reveal of the Doomsday Clock

Robert Rosner, left, and Suzet McKinney reveal the 2021 setting of the Doomsday Clock. Photo: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists/Thomas Gaulkin

In its annual update on Wednesday morning, scientists announced the Doomsday Clock would be kept at 100 seconds to midnight.

Why it matters: The decision to keep the clock hands steady — tied for the closest it has ever been to midnight in the clock's 74-year history — reflects a picture of progress on climate change and politics undercut by growing threats from infectious disease and disruptive technologies.

Driving the news: In a virtual event, members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced they would keep the Doomsday Clock at the same setting as 2020.

  • Rachel Bronson, the group's president and CEO, said "the world has entered into the realm of a 2-minute warning. The risk is high and the margin for error is low."

Details: If keeping the clock's hands unchanged lacks drama, the decision captures a year that saw some progress even as the world experienced the worst pandemic in a century.

  • As terrible as COVID-19 has been, Bronson noted accurately that SARS-CoV-2 "will not obliterate humanity," which is precisely the category of threat the clock was designed to highlight.
  • The threat of climate change — which has risen as a concern for the clock's scientists in recent years — receded somewhat in 2020, with carbon emissions falling thanks in large part to the pandemic and the U.S. preparing to rejoin the Paris Agreement under President Biden.
  • While the threat of sudden nuclear war has risen in recent years, a new treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons and Russia and the U.S.'s likely move to renew the New Start arms control treaty offers some hope.

Yes, but: The reality is that the Doomsday Clock — which grew out of the work of researchers who had been involved in the Manhattan Project — may have outlived its usefulness in an age when existential risk has become so diffuse and fast-moving.

  • While the clock's hands remained unchanged this year, the truth is that existential risk is growing year by year, as destructive new technologies outpace our ability to control them.

The bottom line: In an age when nuclear weapons are just one of many ways humanity could bring about its own end, should midnight finally strike, it won't come with a countdown.

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