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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.

Go deeper

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.