Tick Tock: Why is the Doomsday Clock so Close to Midnight?


This time last year, we all moved slightly closer towards the end of the world. That is, according to the Doomsday Clock – a symbolic device designed to reflect the likelihood of humanity’s annihilation at any given time.

Created in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock is set to a specific amount of minutes before midnight to demonstrate how close we are to the end of the world. The clock has moved 22 times over the past 70 years, changing in response to events such as political upheaval, environmental risks and global security.

The change last January, from 3 minutes to 2.5 minutes to midnight, came in response to increased global security threats, the growing prevalence of nationalism worldwide and the stance of US President Donald Trump on nuclear arms and climate change.

The Big Three

So what sort of threats are we looking at when it comes to humanity’s survival? Well, according to a recent report, three of the most present risks to human life on Earth are pandemics, climate change and nuclear war.

But it’s not all bad news. The report highlights steps that the global community can take to limit these risks. How exactly? In a word: cooperation. The report suggests that when it comes to preventing all three scenarios – disease, environmental disaster and war – international collaboration is key.

Let’s look at pandemics: the world is more connected now than ever before. We can hop on a plane in Honduras and arrive in London on the same day. And this is great news for holiday makers, but it also helps spread harmful viruses and bacteria.

Both Ebola and Zika were localised outbreaks which grew into global crises, in part because pathogens can now reach new populations far quicker than in the past. This connectivity also increases the threat from bioterrorism – the purposeful releasing of infectious agents as a form of warfare. Pathogens can spread across populations like an army, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

So it’s clear that we need global action on pandemics. If we respond swiftly and on an international level, then we have a much better chance of containing and stamping out disease before it has the chance to spread. The same is true for that other major existential threat: climate change.


The world is getting warmer much too fast, and if we don’t act soon, the consequences for humanity could be devastating. Vertebrate species, including mammals, reptiles, birds and fish, are currently going extinct approximately 100 times faster than normal, and catastrophic climate events could spell an end to our species in the not too distant future.

But once again, the power to change is within our control. Action on climate change needs to come at all levels, from individuals to nations. And working together on a global scale will be absolutely essential.

Finally, it goes without saying that global planning and cooperation will also be vital to warding off the existential threats posed by nuclear warfare. We’ve been dealing with these issues for more than half a century. Indeed, the original Doomsday Clock was conceived by scientists working on the Manhattan Project – a research programme that developed the world’s first nuclear weapons back in the 1940s.

So a global perspective is not just important for the health and prosperity of the world; it’s essential to our survival. Existence is, of course, finite. Every form of life will eventually meet its end, but the human race is the only species in history that has a say in its survival. The clock may be ticking for us, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world – at least not yet.


A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail


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