It is two-and-a-half minutes to midnight by the Doomsday Clock. The day the hands converge on “12” will be the dawn of Armageddon. Every human culture has hypothesised and mythologised the end of creation in its own way, but these were mostly a parochial viewpoint about natural events seen as evidence of divine punishment for alleged transgressions. Thus, the Biblical exodus and the 12 plagues of Egypt have been linked by respected scientists to the devastating volcanic eruption of Thera (Santorini in modern Greece) around 1500 BCE, which also destroyed the Minoan civilisation based on Crete.

The Doomsday Clock, however, refers to specifically human causes, especially nuclear catastrophe. Conceived in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after the appalling destructive power of nuclear weapons became clear, this is the closest that human civilisation has been to extinction in many years. But most of us chug on, in part because we feel helpless to prevent it and partly because it seems so distant from ordinary life.

Also, of course, more than 70 years have passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki so it is no more than a historical landmark for those of us born after the 1950s. Perhaps that is why we are so blasé about nuclear extinction though more countries than ever possess both the bomb and the means to deliver it, not to speak of assorted extremist groups that have tried, so far without success, to get hold of enough weapons grade material for a crude bomb.

The most troubling example is North Korea. The world’s champion isolationist last year conducted two tests and has been in a frenzy to develop delivery systems for nuclear warheads that could reach the US. The North Korean crisis of recent weeks is a blow-up between Pyongyang and Washington over missile tests. It came out of virtually nowhere after the US warned of consequences if the tests continued. The North Koreans vowed to carry on as usual and threatened to destroy South Korea’s capital Seoul if the US attacked. Normally, such bluster would have been met with a shrug but North Korea has nuclear weapons, is dangerously unstable as the option rests in the hands of the paranoid Kim Jong-un and so best approached warily.

When Manhattan Project scientists first saw the mushroom cloud, Robert Oppenheimer recalled: “I remembered the line from the Bhagavad Gita; “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” That sums up the fear nuclear weapons inspire. They have the capacity to destroy civilisation beyond hope of repair in the winter that will follow. At the peak of the Cold War, policy makers coined the word “megadeath” (one million dead) to estimate the toll from a full nuclear exchange. That period is long over but serious tensions persist worldwide and the number of nuclear weapons states rises. That surely raises the possibilities of a strike. We know from history that every weapon ever devised has been used. There is no guarantee we won’t use this one. But there’s no real effort to eliminate them, perhaps because every government that has them believes it is sane and responsible.

The Doomsday Clock no longer confines itself to the nuclear peril. The Bulletin also uses it to measure the dangers from global warming. The situation here is far worse. Climate scientists, in a recent update, note that the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) could be close to runaway melting. It holds 2.2 million cubic km of water, enough to raise sea levels by up to four metres. That would destroy every port city on the planet. But WAIS won’t melt in isolation. The even larger Greenland ice sheet (2.9 million km3) will be affected, as will other ice masses. What all this water will do to the climate is beyond comprehension for now, but biosphere destruction could equal the Cretaceous extinction 65 million years ago.

Two and a half minutes is a long time but it is a finite measure. Can it be undone? Yes, but only if we abandon the Micawberish fantasies of somehow muddling through. The scientific consensus is that human industry is chiefly culpable for carbon emissions. But as with nuclear weapons, policy makers have been slow to take it seriously. The human species, in the words of C.S. Lewis “have pulled down deep heaven on their heads” but the cause is not lost yet. The remedy is in our hands. While the new US administration seems bent on destroying the Paris Accord architecture and returning to the days of big coal, China and India are dead serious and look set to exceed their targets for clean power. They are the pace setters in the race to avoid catastrophe.  With Europe also on board, the outlook is significantly brighter now but there is no room for complacency.


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