The Doomsday Clock Is a Terrible Metaphor for Climate Change

By Ethan Brown

It’s 90 seconds to midnight. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, we’re closer than ever to nuclear annihilation. It’s no surprise, considering the conflict in Europe. It is a surprise, however, to hear nuclear scientists, journalists, and world leaders attribute climate change as a factor in this year’s doomsday diagnosis. Climate change is a serious problem, but co-opting the Doomsday Clock metaphor is ridiculously misleading.

The Doomsday Clock was originally conceived in 1947 by atomic scientists as a metaphor to raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons. “Midnight” means nuclear holocaust. While crossing the nuclear threshold doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, there are scenarios in which nuclear weapons precipitate actual human extinction. So it’s a plausible metaphor. One day, at the press of a button, the clock strikes midnight. And the world as we know it ends.

But that’s not at all how climate change works.

Climate change doesn’t happen in a flash, like a nuclear missile or world-ending asteroid. It is extreme weather events and long-term changes in temperature and precipitation hitting specific areas over time, each event worse than the last. It’s a gradual, cumulative process. No one climate event is powerful enough to spell doomsday.

The problem of climate change is still extremely serious. If the world continues along its current trajectory and warms by 2.6°C over preindustrial temperatures, we would face catastrophic threats to our food supply, water supply, houses, jobs, coastal cities, island nations, economy, health, justice, biodiversity, and national security. Many lives would be lost.

Because of these worrying effects, some may argue the Doomsday Clock is a helpful metaphor to raise awareness and facilitate conversation about climate change. I strongly disagree.

First, excessive climate alarmism can cause feelings of anxiety and depression — 59% of millennial and 69% of Gen-Z social media users said they felt anxious about the future after viewing climate content. Studies have linked these emotions to lower well-being and, importantly, lower engagement in the climate cause. We can only wrap our heads around so much doom before just tuning it out. Communicating the reality of the situation — that there’s exciting climate solutions already in progress — is far more likely to encourage people to get involved.

Also, the idea of climate doomsday diminishes the fact that climate change is already here. We’ve seen land disappearing from Pacific Island nations; a historic drought in the Horn of Africa displacing 1.5 million people; last year’s floods in Pakistan submerging a third of the country, killing more than 1,700 people, and causing $30 billion in economic damage; and much more. If people associate climate change with the concept of doomsday, they may mistakenly believe climate change is a problem for their children and grandchildren rather than a problem here and now.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists began including climate change in their Doomsday calculation in 2007. According to their website, nuclear weapons and climate change both have “​​the potential to destroy civilization and render the Earth largely uninhabitable by human beings.” Citing nuclear fission reactors as a potential carbon-free energy source, they note the issues are “also intertwined.”

Climate change alone could not feasibly render the entire Earth uninhabitable within our lifetimes based on current trajectories. And if more nuclear reactors help the world develop a carbon neutral energy sector, shouldn’t that move the clock away from midnight? Climate change and nuclear science are intertwined, but the phrase “90 seconds to midnight” not only fails to be nuanced about the issues, but it could leave people too anxious and depressed to care.

Climate change and nuclear annihilation shouldn’t be lumped together in one headline. In a world where climate anxiety and doom-and-gloom clickbait is rampant, climate communicators should prioritize nuance and hope over alarmist nuclear metaphors.

Ethan Brown is a contributor for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative “Peril and Promise.” Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.