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What Is the Doomsday Clock and Are We All Really About to Die?

It’s just a metaphor, obviously, but it does sort of sum up where we’re at right now

Big news today in the world, what with the Doomsday Clock moving 30 seconds closer to midnight. That puts us at two-and-a-half minutes to the apocalypse on the metaphorical timepiece from the The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Which is really not a good thing. It’s the closest we’ve been to midnight since the early 1960s — you know, back when that little incident known as the Cuban Missile Crisis happened.

We were at two minutes to midnight then, and that was probably the only moment ever in history where everybody was kinda just like, “Yeah, we’re all about to get nuked, huh.” It was a bad and scary time to live through.

And now, here we are living in 2017 — a year that, according to the Doomsday Clock, is the second scariest time ever to live in if you’re concerned about global apocalypses.

But what does this all even mean? Who exactly runs the Doomsday Clock? What are they factoring in when they figure out what the time should be?

Well, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is a magazine that was founded by scientists in Chicago who had worked on the Manhattan Project — that being, of course, the U.S. project to develop the atomic bomb way back when. The Bulletin began publishing the clock on its cover every issue starting in 1947 (though they no longer publish a print edition), and the clock was intended to be a gauge of the nuclear arms race and how close said arms race — and the accompanying Cold War — was to killing us all. With midnight as the apocalyptic moment.

The Clock “is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age,” the Bulletin’s co-founder Eugene Rabinowitch explained.

It was an important mission in 1947, just a couple years after the U.S. dropped the bomb twice on Japan to end World War II. The atomic bomb represented the first ever man-made weapon that could, in the right circumstances, destroy all of humanity at once. It wouldn’t be the last, as we know.

Nowadays, the Doomsday Clock doesn’t just attempt to measure the likelihood of an imminent nuclear war — no, now we have other types of extinction-level events to contend with, like the global climate change problem we have.

So the Doomsday Clock factors in all of it. In 2017, the clocked moved up 30 seconds more or less because the folks at the Bulletin who decide what the clock should read view Donald Trump as an existential threat to humanity because of his reckless speech and skepticism of climate change. Plus, now we’ve got…whatever it is going on at the Environmental Protection Agency, which was not factored into the decision to move the Doomsday Clock forward. If the Clock committee had waited until this week to convene to decide on the time, it might have moved further.

Climate change has been the primary reason the clock has been so close to midnight the last several years (it’s been at three minutes to midnight since 2013) — and so Trump’s suggested walk-backs addressing climate-related issues are not seen as a good thing, for obvious reasons.

If you want to read the Bulletin’s rationale for the change, you can do that here. I also recommend reading the complete timeline of changes to the Doomsday Clock in its 70-year history, which you can do here.

The Doomsday Clock is not asserting that the apocalypse is definitely near. It isn’t saying that global thermonuclear war is definitely imminent, or that climate change will definitely kill us all very soon.

Instead, it’s a warning, from scientists, that those things could happen if something doesn’t change for the better, and soon. This was borne out with the Cuban Missile Crisis — the U.S. actually was pretty close to war (though it was not necessarily guaranteed to be nuclear) in 1962, and the Clock’s estimation that we were two minutes to midnight was pretty accurate.