Nuclear weapons, global pandemics, accelerating global climate change: Is humanity running-out of time? Despite 2020 general awfulness, humanity paused on the path-forward to Armageddon, at least, consistent with the Doomsday Clock, a hypothetical timepiece that annually assesses our nearness to utter annihilation.
This year, the Doomsday Clock‘s hands won’t be moving forward and it continues to show the same time that was set last year: 100 seconds to mid-night, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), a global organization of science & policy experts, announced at a virtual press event on Wednesday (27 January, 2021).
The bad news is that we are still closer to midnight than we have been at any time since the clock was introduced more than 60 years ago. With widespread mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic in nations worldwide; small progress in eliminating nuclear weapons & insufficient mitigation of destructive climate change, the BAS decided to-hold the clock at present, perilous time, as a warning & “wake-up call,” BAS representatives said in a statement.
COVID-19 was a newcomer to the list of challenges that humanity faced in 2020 and though efforts are underway to bring the coronavirus under control, its swift & deadly spread demonstrated that a lot of nations were ill-equipped to deal with serious global health emergencies, Rachel Bronson, BAS president & CEO, said at the press event.
“Governments around the world abdicated their responsibility, didn’t cooperate and consequently failed to-protect the health & welfare of their citizens,” Bronson said. While COVID-19 will recede eventually, it still serves, “as a historic wake-up call,” showing that officials are woefully unprepared to-handle pandemics that would arise in the future, Bronson said.
Global carbon emissions, a main driver of human-induced climate change, temporarily dropped nearly 17% due to the pandemic, “but have largely bounced-back,” said Susan Solomon, a professor of environmental studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a BAS Science & Security member. By the end of 2020, emissions were only nearly 4% less than the year before, ” and are expected to rise because the world emerges from the pandemic,” Solomon said at the press event. In any case, pandemic-induced reductions in emissions is not a sustainable plan for the future, Solomon added.
One of humanity’s biggest & longest standing existential risks, nuclear weapons remained “unacceptably high” with the United Nations relegating more than a trillion dollars to modernizing & developing its nuclear weapons programs, said BAS member Steve Fetter, a professor of public policy at University of Maryland. Russia maintains about 1,000 nuclear weapons “that might be launched in minutes,” Fetter added.
“The modernization & expansion of nuclear arsenals in multiple countries, combined with the lack of diplomatic efforts to decrease nuclear risks, have increased the likelihood of catastrophe,” he said within the statement. “By our estimation, the potential for the world to stumble into nuclear war, an ever-present danger over the last 75 years, increased in 2020.”
To decide the clock’s time every year, the BAS’s Science & Security Board consults with the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, 13 of whom are Nobel Laureates, to assess threats that loom large on the global stage. Recent years have seen alarming forward momentum in the clock’s proximity to mid-night.
In 2018, clock’s big hand ticked forward to stand at 2 minutes to midnight, the last & only time that they had previously come that close was in 1953, when tensions between the United States & the former Soviet Union were climbing & both global superpowers had conducted the first hydrogen bombs detonations, barely 6 months apart.
Doomsday’s time stood still in 2019, but ticked forward again in 2020, to reflect that humanity faces, “a true emergency, an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that eliminated any margin for error or further delay,” Bronson said in a statement that year.
Though the hands of the Doomsday Clock remain static, for now, existential threats to humanity continue to advance, said Nobel Peace lottery winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia & co-chair of the World Health Organization.
“What we’ve all endured over the past year shows that we cannot afford to waste any more time,” Sirleaf said at the press event. “Future generations will neither understand nor forgive further inaction under such grave-threats.”
When the Doomsday Clock debuted on the cover of BAS’s magazine in 1947, its minute-hand was positioned at 7 minutes to midnight. At the time, nuclear weapons were thought to be humanity’s biggest threat. Though the amounts of nuclear weapons in military stockpiles declined worldwide since the Cold War, global inventories show that approx. 13,410 warheads remain, the Federation of yank Scientists (FAS) reported in September 2020. Of these warheads, nearly 91% belong to the U.S. & Russia, FAS says.
Today, BAS researchers consider additional potential triggers for planetwide catastrophe, like climate change, disruptive technologies and the widespread use of social media platforms that fuel misinformation’s rapid spread and erode trust in the media & in science.
In the U.S. & elsewhere in the world, far-right extremism emerged in 2020 as a growing source of terrorist violence & social disruption. Experts must now consider that groups embracing radical right-wing ideologies could constitute a big threat to U.S. national security, BAS representatives wrote on 14 January, 2021.
“These extremists represent a unique danger due to their prevalence in federal institutions like the military and the potential that they could infiltrate nuclear facilities, where they might access sensitive information & nuclear materials,” BAS representatives said. “Officials need to-act decisively to better understand & mitigate this threat.”
Infectious disease roared to the forefront during 2020. To date, COVID-19 has infected more than 99 million people worldwide & has killed more than 2 million, consistent with the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. More than 25 million cases are reported in the U.S. alone and over 400,000 American people have died of the coronavirus to date.
Alongside COVID-19, the impacts-of escalating climate change led NASA scientists to declare 2020, the hottest year on record, tying with 2016. Earth’s average global temperatures have risen 2 Fo (1.2 Co) since the 1880s and annual global surface temperatures for the past 44 years are higher than the 20th century average. In 2020, Arctic sea ice cover plummeted to record lows; Australia lost quite 20% of its forests during a record-breaking wildfire season and the Atlantic hurricane season was one among the most intense & busiest on record, with a record thirty named storms.
As dire as all of this sounds, these challenges are human-made and solutions to them will likewise come from collective human efforts, ingenuity & will, BAS members said at the press event.
“Today, we’ve the opportunity for a global reset, to admit & learn from past mistakes & to better prepare ourselves for future threats,” whether from nuclear confrontations, climate change, pandemics, “or a mix of all of those,” Sirleaf said.
“I hope we act to bring those hands back further & further and make the world a safer place,” George said.