Best of times, worst of times

The annual ritual of seeing whether the famous Doomsday Clock moves closer to or further from midnight took a worrying turn this year, as it inched to its closest point to the witching hour in the last 75 years, in response to a confluence of events and escalating risks, as I described in the Irish Examiner in early February.

“IT WAS THE best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens wrote in 1859. “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.

Today, a century and a half later, his opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ still ring true. There are more people alive now than at any other time in history, and more are living free from the shackles of abject poverty, hunger, disease and early death than ever before.

By many objective measures, especially for those of us in prosperous, stable countries like Ireland, these are indeed the very best of times. We enjoy levels of personal freedom, material wealth, comfort and physical well-being almost unimaginable even to our grandparents’ generation.

Paradoxically, we also live in an age of foolishness and incredulity, that threatens to propel humanity into an endless winter of despair. Last week, a panel of international scientists who maintain the so-called Doomsday Clock, moved its hands ominously forward, to 90 seconds to midnight.

The clock was first established by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, just two years after the devastating killing power of nuclear weapons was first unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the first time in history, humanity was now a planetary force, capable of triggering a global catastrophe on a par with an asteroid strike. Such god-like power should come with commensurate responsibility, and the Doomsday Clock was set up as a stark visual reminder of the limits of our power.

In the three-quarters of a century since then, the clock has ticked back and forth in synch with the ebb and flow of world events. In 1953, it moved to two minutes to midnight following the test detonation of the devastatingly powerful hydrogen bomb. That had, in the assessment of the scientific panel, been our most dangerous moment — until now.

Nuclear concerns

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the principal reason for the unprecedented pessimism in 2023. Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric since then has included repeated thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. This was repeated in recent days by former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, who warned darkly that his country’s defeat in Ukraine could lead to a nuclear strike by Russia.

The Russian invasion has also severely damaged international efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. Ukraine handed over its entire Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to the Russian Federation under a 1994 treaty signed in Budapest in which Russia, the US and Britain solemnly agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.

Many in Ukraine and beyond are wondering if the only true deterrent to an aggressive neighbour is to have your own nuclear weapons. Russia’s recklessness extends to what the scientists call its “violation of international protocols and risking of the widespread release of radioactive materials” in its capture of the nuclear reactor sites at Zaporizhzhia and Chernobyl.

With the heightened risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear incident, “the possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high”, the report warned.

Climate crisis

While the nuclear risk remains binary – it may or may not happen – the Doomsday Clock has in recent years also been tracking the climate crisis with growing alarm.

The war in Ukraine has occurred at the worst possible moment as it “undermines global efforts to combat climate change…and has led to expanded investment in natural gas exactly when such investment should have been shrinking”, the report warned.

As a uniquely global crisis, effective efforts to tackle the climate emergency “require faith in multilateral governance”, which the scientists say has been weakened by the “geopolitical fissure opened by the invasion of Ukraine”.

Having stumbled in the past into dangerous nuclear stand-offs, the hope is that once again sense will prevail and a nuclear disaster will be avoided. However, the climate crisis is an altogether different threat. Here, for a cataclysm to unfold simply requires that the international community fails to act in line with the science.

Division, disinformation, social media-fuelled polarisation and the resurgence of political extremism all undermine our faith in science and reason at the very moment in human history when we need to come together like never before.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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