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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Ninety seconds to midnight

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‘Teetering near the edge,’ scientists say on where humanity is

If the moment of apocalypse were to happen at midnight, the earth is just 90 seconds away from it. This point is the closest we have ever come to the metaphorical equivalent of annihilation.

This is what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group which includes at least nine Nobel laureates, declared on Jan. 23.

Serving as the basis for this moment of historical danger are the war in Ukraine and Gaza, and the widespread and growing reliance on nuclear weapons — China, Russia, and the United States are spending big money to expand or modernize their nuclear capacities.

Last year, too, was the hottest year on record for the Earth; climate-related disasters affected millions across the globe.

Aside from this, there are rapid and worrisome developments in the life sciences and in disruptive technologies.

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In 2019, the clock was at two minutes to midnight; in 2022, it was reset to 100 seconds.

This is the second straight year that the clock’s position has been at 90 minutes to midnight. “Humanity continues to face an unprecedented level of danger,” according to the Bulletin.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other scientists from the University of Chicago who developed atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project.

This was supposedly the physicists’ way of protesting the use of the weapons on people.

The scientists, after the bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, felt deeply responsible for the consequences of their own work.

Their objective was to equip the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to humanity’s existence.

Two years later, in 1947, the Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock.

On its website, the Bulletin said everyone has an interest in reducing the likelihood of catastrophe.

No single country can keep these threats under control, so the leaders and nations “have to work together in the shared belief that common threats demand common actions.”

Despite this moment being one of acute danger, two officials of the Bulletin – president and CEO Rachel Bronson and Science and Security Board chair Daniel Holz, who describe themselves as “experts who spend our lives on these issues” – sent out a message of hope.

In an op-ed for USA Today, Bronson and Holz cite encouraging developments amid the global threats. For instance, the transition to clean energy has gained momentum, with more that $1.7 trillion being invested in clean energy last year.

And then, governments around the world have started acting on the prevailing public discourse on AI paired with modern bioresearch or military systems and minimizing judgment on issues of life and death.

There are efforts to better regulate pathogen research, which could maintain the ability to create new lifesaving treatments with minimizing risk.

There have also been diplomatic initiatives to contain the global nuclear threat and a push for a landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“We need innovation by experts to identify new solutions. We need bold political leadership to implement solutions. And ultimately, all of us need to be the catalysts,” Bronson and Holz wrote.

***

The threats mentioned above are very deeply felt here in the Philippines as well.

What is happening in the West Philippine Sea reminds us every day that our part of the world is a flash point and is never secure.

Our geographical location makes us vulnerable to extreme weather patterns brought about by climate change, and the uneven disaster risk reduction management capacities of our local governments magnify that vulnerability.

Despite being known for being active social media users, Filipinos easily fall prey to disinformation and misinformation, as well as scams and fraud.

We have also not yet figured out how to view, deal with, and cope with AI given the certainty of its presence in our life and society.

Our share of pressing issues finds resonance with and is reflected in the global situation.

We wonder: should similar parameters be used to localize the Doomsday Clock, at which point exactly would the Philippines be?

What other issues specific to our country must be considered?

More importantly, what do we need to do in order to move away from midnight?

The word “doomsday” seems so glum and daunting, conjuring images of annihilation and the end of life as we know it.

But working backward from this likelihood, in measurable intervals like seconds or minutes, could do an effective job of emphasizing worst-case scenarios so they would not have to come to pass. Sometimes, it is only when we are aware of what is at stake and what we are about to lose that we come to our senses.

adellechua@gmail.com

(Adelle Chua is an assistant professor of journalism at the UP College of Mass Communication. She was opinion editor and columnist for this newspaper for 15 years until 2021)

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