Doomsday Clock: 10 seconds that could make all the difference in the world

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis, and biological threats such as Covid-19 have brought human extinction closer than ever before

The Doomsday Clock, created 76 years ago by Albert Einstein and other atomic scientists to warn against a human-made apocalypse, has moved to 90 seconds to midnight.

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis and biological threats such as the unchecked spread of Covid-19 are the leading reasons for setting the hands of the clock closer to human extinction than they have ever been before – including at the height of the cold war.

For the past three years the clock has been stuck at 100 seconds to midnight, hovering at what was until now the closest-ever point to humanity’s annihilation.

Who are the keepers of the clock?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit organisation of eminent scientists and policy experts, set the time of the symbolic timepiece every year. It consults its science and security board, with advice also provided by 10 Nobel laureates.


What are the most menacing threats at play this year?

The latest announcement by the experts means the perceived threat to humanity is now more severe than it was last year, with “unprecedented danger” posed by the Russia-Ukraine war.

“Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks,” they said.

Their verdict was also influenced by continuing threats arising from breakdown of global norms, with governments and institutions needing to mitigate risks associated with advancing disruptive technologies, its panel of experts warned. Biological threats are in rogue states with ability to build biological weapons, while mechanisms to anticipate the impact of diseases crossing the species barrier from animals to humans are grossly deficient.

The most chilling comment came from security specialist Dr Steve Fetter: “Worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict – by accident, intention or miscalculation – is a terrible risk.” Their statement was translated into Ukrainian and Russian for the first time.

The 2023 verdict did not pull any punches in citing weak political leaders who had failed to address these existential threats when the science is clear and time is fast running out

To what extent are emerging threats factored in?

The Doomsday Clock has always reflected deftness in evaluating the multiplicity of threats to humanity.

Of late it has highlighted the already happening climate crisis and looming catastrophe of biodiversity loss. The 2023 verdict did not pull any punches in citing weak political leaders who had failed to address these existential threats when the science is clear and time is fast running out.

“We are on the brink of a precipice. But our leaders are not acting at sufficient speed or scale to secure a peaceful and liveable planet,” said chairwoman of the Elders and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson at the unveiling in Washington, DC.

Dr Sivan Kartha of Stockholm Environmental Institute said dealing with the worsening climate crisis required faith in institutions of multilateral governance and co-operation. But “the geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine has weakened trust among countries and the global will to co-operate”.

Is the clock simply an indicator of woe?

The clock may be a metaphor for how close humanity is to self-annihilation but it also serves as a call to action to reverse the hands, which have been moved backwards in the past.

It also seeks to identify progress; this year tremendous expansion and innovation in renewable energy was recorded, with renewables set to be the dominant global energy source within five years. The “seriousness” of the upcoming generation in wanting to resolve the climate crisis was also “something we can take heart in”, Kartha said.

There was even a modicum of hope emanating in the response from Moscow. “The situation as a whole is really alarming,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, calling for a sober appraisal of the tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times