The world just got a step closer to a catastrophic disaster caused by mankind. At least, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the clock they control representing the threat of an apocalypse.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock 70 years ago as a response to the growing threat of nuclear warfare. The closer the minute hand is to midnight, the board believes that the world is to an apocalypse. Originally, scientists involved with the Manhattan Project, the scheme responsible for the first nuclear weapons, invented the clock. It was designed for the cover of the first bulletin in which they produced updates about nuclear weaponry. The clock has moved from seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991 to two minutes to midnight in 1953 since. Several days ago, on January 22nd 2017, they moved the clock 30 seconds closer to midnight at two-and-a-half minutes.
The reason for this almost negative record seems to be the disturbing things the newly inaugurated president of the United States has said, according to the scientists. Especially the positive remarks towards expanding the nuclear capabilities and the scepticism towards climate change. These are the two biggest threats for mankind according to the scientists that created the clock. Next to these two main reasons, the scientists also name the nuclear ambition of North-Korea, the worsened relation between the U.S. and Russia and the worldwide growing popularity of nationalism as great threats. The only time the clock was set closer to midnight was in 1953 when the U.S. created the hydrogen bomb.
What does it mean?
With the clock being set to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists thinks the chances of a global catastrophe are ‘very high’. The clock has been moved forward and backward for the last 70 years and no global catastrophe has occurred, so why would you believe it this time? The purpose of the clock is not forecasting but rather warning the world of its plight.
But how would one measure how close the end of the world is? For certain risks there is almost a literal clock; for example we roughly know when the sun will expand and make life on Earth impossible. There are also risks, such as pandemics, that start out on microscopic scale and expand exponentially when a random mutation occurs. These threats can be treated as probabilities since they are random events, same goes for earthquakes and volcanoes. However, the biggest threats to mankind, which are the main reasons the Doomsday clock is so close to midnight, are dependent on human factors.
The Conversation wrote an article in which they attempt to calculate a concrete risk based on human factors. They suggest that there is an unknown probability of nuclear war per year. Assuming that every year fate rolls the dice, one can calculate the chance of a given number of years without a nuclear war. If you turn this logic around, you can get an estimation on how likely nuclear war is. They used this Bayesian approach to probability and that puts the chance of nuclear war at 1.4% per year (95% confidence interval 0.036%-5.1%). Still, this 1.4% is based on a list of potentially suspect assumptions; there is a lot of uncertainty about these assumptions. They conclude by stating that it is better to explicitly acknowledging uncertainty and that the nuclear risk is unacceptable high.