Opinion: Time for Doomsday Clock to Stop Ticking

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The Doomsday Clock hasn’t ticked any further in the past year, with the minute hand still reading five minutes to midnight.

In their report directed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the members of the U.N. Security Council, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind this iconic and ominous symbol of global vulnerability, cited limited strides to reducing nuclear stockpiles; the spread of civilian nuclear power applications, potentially creating new nuclear weapons states; and inaction on climate change, among other reasons, for keeping the clock unchanged.

First conceived in 1947, when it appeared on the Bulletin’s cover, the Doomsday Clock was a potent metaphor in a bygone era in which two global superpowers stared down one another, each backed by an arsenal the likes of which history had never seen.

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When the Soviet Union kicked off the nuclear arms race with its first successful test of an atomic bomb, the Doomsday Clock stood at a mere three minutes to midnight. Four years later, humanity ended closer than it ever had to a civilization-ending event by the clock’s standard, when it display just two minutes to midnight.

Since then, the Doomsday Clock has periodically added and subtracted minutes as the 20th century has unfolded. But even after the Soviet Union dissolved, the clock remained ever watchful not just for nuclear, but for other threats as well to the existence of our species.

The Doomsday Clock has run its course, however. Here’s why it’s time to retire this 20th-century icon:

The Cold War is over. The threat of global nuclear annihilation, the reason for the creation of the Doomsday Clock, isn’t what it used to be in the public consciousness. When the clock debuted in 1947, it resonated with audiences who believed a spark that would lead to nuclear apocalypse could be right around the corner.

Despite the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, international concern about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and the nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons deployed around the world, other global threats proved more concerning around the world, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, with climate change topping the list. These are threats whose impact is not felt in a flash, as alluded to with the countdown clock, but rather over many years and without the same sense of finality.

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In the search for relevant threats, the Bulletin has turned from political reality to technological fantasy. International political developments still govern the movement of the minute hand on the clock, as does speculation about their future course. But the Bulletin also includes other potential hazards that have little to do with today’s reality.

Included alongside the threats listed above are “cyber weapons” and “killer robots.” While cyber attacks and drones have certainly caused damage in terms of property and lives and the increasing threats they pose in the future, neither are on the scale to justify their consideration as harbingers of doomsday.

Even the inclusion of global climate change seems a touch hyperbolic. Though certainly devastating and potentially catastrophic, global warming does not pose the kind of immediate civilization-ending impact that does an intercontinental thermonuclear missile deluge envisioned at the start of the nuclear race. In fact, that kind of alarmism might even be counterproductive in terms of encouraging action to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

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Doomsday predictions are becoming less fashionable. Given the so-called Mayan apocalypse, Harold Camping and a string of bad movies about the apocalypse, doomsday has lost its punch and is more of a punchline, if anything. The Bulletin devised the Doomsday Clock in order to issue a serious warning about the vulnerability to extinction at our own hands, but continuing to shout doomsday only muffles the volume of that message.

The clock is just a bad metaphor. More of a personal nitpick, but the best way to demonstrate the finality of global nuclear holocaust might not be a clock that turns back time every now and again.

In light of the ever-increasing dangers posed by climate change, might we suggest a goose with a thermometer sticking out of it? Once it gets to a certain temperature, then we know we’re cooked.

Photo: The Doomsday Clock is set at five minutes to midnight. Credit: Getty Images