Time's not quite up: Doomsday Clock remains at 90 seconds to midnight
Despite a 2024 so far marked with serious conflicts, climate uncertainty and the rapid ascension of AI technologies, the famous Doomsday Clock has remained paused at 90 seconds to midnight, the same time as last year.
The clock, created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, aims to signify how close to world destruction we are. While it initially focused on nuclear annihilation – fittingly, given Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists were among its founders – it was broadened to take in other global threats such as technology and climate change.
The current time is the closest it’s come to the ‘end’ – midnight – in its history. A far cry from 1991, when it was reset to 17 minutes to midnight, largely due to the official end of the Cold War.
While metaphorical, the Doomsday Clock is an ominous indicator of life on Earth – and the scientists behind the update warn that just because the time remains unchanged does not mean it’s a good outcome.
“Make no mistake: resetting the clock at 90 seconds to midnight is not an indication that the world is stable,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, the Bulletin. “Quite the opposite. It’s urgent for governments and communities around the world to act. And the Bulletin remains hopeful – and inspired – in seeing the younger generations leading the charge.”
In the spotlight this year is the threat of generative AI and its dissemination of misinformation that could fuel more conflicts and make present ones more challenging to resolve.
"We can expect technology to continue to have a visible impact on future Doomsday Clock predictions,” said Erica Mealy from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. “Not only have we seen the rise of ChatGPT and the fact that has been described as a potential existential threat but we've seen an enormous uptick in the use of resources for these technologies. One such issue is training these LLMs takes an enormous amount of electricity and water for cooling.
“Furthermore, the increase in electric vehicles with their need for electricity means that issues of capacity related to coping with temperature extremes across the world, are further compounded by adding AI training and increased EV ownership,” she added. “It is clear the need for sustainably sourced power and carbon offset has never been greater.”
In 2024, the clock may not be wholly focused on nuclear war, but it’s still a factor in the 2024 time. The Bulletin team cites a potential three-way nuclear arms race between the US, China and Russia, as well as expanding arsenal in Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.
Another key contributor was climate change. Despite the world investing a record-breaking US$1.7 trillion in clean energy in 2023, investment in fossil fuels almost matched this figure (nearly $1 trillion) and the planet experienced its hottest year on record. Global sea-surface temperatures also broke records and greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise.
"Climate change is the world’s largest threat – it changes the living conditions of all living creatures and plants on this planet,” said Sven Teske, associate professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. “Historically, science and engineering have contributed to this crisis, but in the past decade, scientists and engineers have worked hard to avert it.”
It's this glimmer of hope that the Doomsday Clock curators also point to. It’s not great, but there’s immense potential to get the clock moving away from midnight.
“As though on the Titanic, leaders are steering the world toward catastrophe – more nuclear bombs, vast carbon emissions, dangerous pathogens, and artificial intelligence,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, executive chair of the Bulletin. “Only the big powers like China, America, and Russia can pull us back. Despite deep antagonisms, they must cooperate – or we are doomed.”
Science Guy Bill Nye, who joined the Bulletin team for the Doomsday Clock announcement this week, also urged for cooperation and action.
“For decades, scientists have been warning us of the dangers facing humankind,” the presenter said. “We could be facing catastrophe unless we better manage the technologies we’ve created. It’s time to act.”
Watch the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists team reveal the 2024 Doomsday Clock time below.