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Perspective

How climate helped push the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight

On Wednesday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock is 100 seconds to midnight — closer than ever before. The world faces two existential threats: nuclear war and climate change.

SEI Senior Scientist Sivan Kartha is a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which sets the Clock. Below are his remarks, as prepared for Wednesday’s announcement.

Sivan Kartha / Published on 23 January 2020

The Doomsday Clock is unveiled. Photo: The Hastings Group.

I’m Sivan Kartha, member of the Science and Security Board, and Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

The state of the world does indeed demand an emergency response.

And, so, for the first time, the members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Advisory Board have decided to set the Doomsday clock past the two minute mark, to 100 seconds. When that two minute benchmark was first reached, but not passed, in 1953, the sole consideration of the Bulletin was the nuclear threat, and the prospect of human-caused climate change was a mere academic curiosity.

But since that time, the greenhouse gas pollution from burning fossil fuels that humankind has dumped in the atmosphere has risen six-fold. Not surprisingly, the earth has warmed about 1°C , and if we do nothing to curb our greenhouse pollution, the earth will warm by another few degrees.

SEI Senior Scientist Sivan Kartha speaks at the Doomsday Clock announcement in Washington, DC on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

A few degrees might not sound like anything to worry about, much less like an emergency. But let me put it in perspective. During the depths of the last ice age, the earth was only a few degrees colder. Yet its surface was utterly transformed.  Seas were 400 feet lower, and their margins were far from the coastal communities where a third of the world’s population now lives. Their waters were locked up in ice sheets, miles thick, covering large areas of land – where major cities now stand.

As the earth warmed out of that frigid state, it took only 5°C of warming to melt those ice sheets, raise sea levels, and rearranged ecosystems across the continents. It drove many species extinct, and allowed others to flourish. Humankind was one of those species that flourished as the earth settled into a comfortable and stable climate that – as it turned out – was hospitable to the emergence of organized human civilization.

If the earth warms by what we generally think of as just a “few degrees” – if humankind pushes the climate into the “the opposite of an ice age”, or even halfway there – we have no reason to be confident that such a world will remain hospitable to human civilization.

To test the limits of earth’s habitable temperature is madness; it’s a madness akin to the nuclear madness that is again threatening the world.

Even at only 1°C of warming, people across the world are witnessing –  and suffering –  the impacts. In case we’ve forgotten what this past year brought:

  • India was ravaged by record-breaking heat waves and by record-breaking floods, and both took heavy tolls on human lives.
  • Wildfires raged from the Arctic to Australia. They now persist with an unprecedented intensity, extent, and duration that makes them harder to contain, causes more harm to people and their homes, and destroys the land’s ability to ever recover. The very idea of a limited fire season is becoming a thing of the past.
  • Communities from the Caribbean to Mozambique will be struggling for years to recover from the devastating hurricanes that pummeled them this past year, just as communities from Philippines to Puerto Rico are still struggling to recover from intense hurricanes of earlier years.

Despite these devastating warnings, and although some governments are echoing many scientists’ use of the term “climate emergency”, their policies are hardly commensurate to an emergency. The highly anticipated UN Climate Action Summit in September fell far short of Secretary General António Guterres’ request that countries come not with “beautiful speeches, but with concrete plans.” The negotiations in Madrid that followed were no better.

A UN report was released underscoring what was already well known: the pledges to curb greenhouse gas pollution that governments committed to pursue by 2030 under the Paris climate agreement, need to be scaled up 8-fold to be consistent with the agreed aim of keeping warming well below 2°C. Now, with five years past since that celebrated Paris breakthrough, only ten years remain to achieve such cuts.  We are far off course, and GHG pollution continues to rise, reaching record levels this past year, when science and plain arithmetic are clear: emissions need to head to zero.

There is no question this is an emergency.

The hope that humankind may yet shift course lies in the fact that more and more people are grasping that reality. And this is despite the active disinformation campaigns that continue to obscure the clarity of the scientific consensus, and despite some leaders’ willingness to attend to, and even amplify, that disinformation. The engagement, activism, and protest that is emerging now is akin to the movements triggered by nuclear disaster and nuclear weapons fears in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Bulletin takes heart in this mounting insistence that our leaders heed the science and begin acting like this is the emergency that it is.

Topics and subtopics
Climate : Climate policy, Fossil fuels
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