Doomsday Clock: Everything that might lead scientists to announce humanity is closer to apocalypse than ever before

The clock is already at three minutes to midnight and as close to apocalypse as it has ever been – 

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, one of the most senior scientific communities in the world, could be about to announce that it is pushing forward its Doomsday Clock.

The clock is used as a way of conceptualising the danger that humanity is in. The closer it gets to midnight, the more likely a catastrophic event – and the clock is already as close to midnight as it has ever been before.

Here are all the things that might make The Bulletin push the clock even further than three minutes to midnight. At that point, the group – which is taken incredibly seriously and includes 16 Nobel laureates – will be proclaiming that humanity is more at-risk than at any other time in its existence.

Nuclear weapons

The Bulletin was formed in the depths of the nuclear age, and destruction by atomic weapons is still one of the biggest motivating factors behind changes to the clock.

The group pointed explicitly to “nuclear proliferation concerns, including the recent North Korean nuclear test”, in its preview of the announcement.

It was largely nuclear weapons that led The Bulletin to push the clock forward by two minutes last year, taking it closer to midnight than it has ever been before.

“Today, unchecked climate change and a nuclear arms race resulting from modernisation of huge arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin, last year. “And world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.

“These failures potentially endanger every person on Earth.”

The committee pointed out that the optimism about the nuclear situation that characterised recent years has mostly disappeared. Many countries are looking to build up their armoury, and the groups that were pushing for disarmament appear to have lost momentum, The Bulletin pointed out.

Some progress has been made this year, with the US opening up towards Iran after it committed to a new nuclear programme. But with North Korea claiming to have successfully tested hydrogen bombs and increased tensions between many nuclear states, the fear is growing.

Global warfare

The Bulletin also pointed to “Tensions between the United States and Russia that remain at levels reminiscent of the Cold War”.  Those large-scale issues have been reflected in places like Syria, and the rise of murderous groups like Isis and Boko Haram are likely to contribute towards The Bulletin’s assessment of the fate of humanity.

Climate change

The world is getting close to dangerous levels of global warming, which could bring with it massive changes to the environment. That could lead to the widespread destruction of large parts of humanity and other animals.

Changes in sea levels are likely to bring flooding to many parts of the world, and could eventually lead to large parts of the world going underwater. Large parts of major cities including London, Shanghai and New York could become inaccessible, and people are likely to have to migrate to other parts of the world.

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Continued changes in temperature will also have huge effects on ecosystems inland, too. They will in turn bring threats to human life that could include new viruses and bacteria, starvation from food shortages and major wars as people fight over dwindling resources.

Many of those effects are already happening. But The Bulletin has warned that if politicians and companies don’t work harder to avoid the worst effects then the result could be apocalyptic – pushing us further towards midnight.

Artificially created biological weapons

One of The Bulletin’s big concerns is that the advances in genetics and biology that have been made in recent years could soon be turned on humanity itself. The new knowledge has mostly been used for good – but it could just as easily be turned on us.

Those could be anything from “new types of "nonlethal" agents, to viruses that sterilize their hosts, to others that incapacitate whole systems within an organism”, The Bulletin has said. “The wide availability of bioengineering knowledge and tools, along with the ease with which individuals can obtain specific fragments of genetic material (some can be ordered through the mail or over the internet), could allow these capabilities to find their way into the hands of groups bent on violent disruption.”

Even scientists with the best intentions might accidentally create harmful biotechnology that could wipe us out. The Bulletin has previously pointed to examples like an event in 2001, when Australian researchers said that they had accidentally created a new and virulent strain of mousepox wile they were trying to make a method for controlling rodents.

New, murderous technologies

Cyber and internet technology is being applied everywhere from industrial manufacturing to the design of tiny systems and computers. And that’s mostly good – but the Bulletin point out that there are few ways of guaranteeing it will stay that way.

Robots evolve on their own

“Whether by governments or non-state actors, technologies can be unleashed on societies causing grave and irreversible harm. And even with the best intentions, deploying technological solutions, say in geoengineering to combat climate change, may lead to unintended consequences with devastating effects,” the Bulletin has written.

“Furthermore, some of these emerging technologies are being developed for military applications that may increase the effectiveness of military operations, the accuracy of weapons in combat, and the control of weapons systems. But such knowledge cannot be kept secret. By utilizing powerful new technologies, militaries may create new methods of killing and subduing populations that could come back to haunt us.”

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