The guardians of the Doomsday Clock have announced their judgement that the world still stands at 100 seconds to midnight. This comes at a time when Russian forces are amassed on the borders of Ukraine, nuclear and new strategic and space forces are being modernised and deployed in all nuclear armed states, trust in our leaderships is shot to pieces, global efforts to stem climate change are woefully insufficient for the existential threat it poses, and emerging disruptive technologies such as machine learning and anti-satellite weapons severely stretch our confidence in maintaining any semblance of control. Developments in biotechnologies race ahead largely unchecked, creating easy opportunities for malign activities. Global conflict persists in the grey zone of cyber warfare, disinformation, and political destabilisation undermining evidence and expertise and disrupting internal controls on nuclear weapons. Lessons from the current pandemic highlight both deeper global threats and our inability to cooperative effectively at the global level.
On the positive side, we have seen the extension of New START and commitments on the part of the US Administration to new arms control tracks. The five Nuclear Weapon States have jointly declared that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and agreed to double-down on efforts to reduce nuclear risks. The US and Russia have begun strategic stability talks. Whilst the COP26 summit failed to adequately meet the challenge, new commitments were made and public support for stronger measures clearly expressed.
The Doomsday Clock alerts us to the way in which human collective activity, and competition between governments, could trigger an existential threat to civilisation. Societal complexities and the likely cascade effects could lead to multiple impacts across all sectors. Whilst any one of the global catastrophic risks studied at our centre at Cambridge University could spell disaster for much of humankind, they could also threaten to trigger a cascade, a perfect storm leading to extinction.
Our vulnerabilities have multiplied with greater interdependence. We need to strengthen our collective governance of these risks, and erect firewalls between them. Unfortunately, the signs highlighted by the Doomsday Clock are that our capacity to do so is draining away. Strategic conflicts have entrenched and are no longer cold as conflicting parties exploit vulnerabilities to harm their competitors. Powerful emerging disruptive technologies undermine what little collective capacity we do have to control outcomes.
We need to:
- better understand the challenges and their interactions;
- develop the capacity for governments and societies to mitigate the risks;
- wean ourselves off practices that drive catastrophic risks;
- develop economies more in tune with the natural constraints we live within;
- strengthen the resilience of our civilisation to withstand major shocks, not least by firewalling between the threats to avoid the perfect storm.
Furthermore, specific recommendations have been published by the Bulletin in their statement, many of which CSER is proud to be working towards achieving:
- The Bulletin called for improvements to the WHO’s monitoring, surveillance and reporting, and this past year CSER has been partnering with the WHO to improve their foresight of Global Health and Dual Use Research of Concern.
- They raise concerns about the internet-enabled misinformation and disinformation, which was a subject of a 2020 report by CSER.
- They also stressed the importance of private and public investors redirecting funds away from fossil fuel projects to climate-friendly investments. This was the focus of our recent Universal Owners Summit and the Cambridge Principles: System Stewardship for Universal Owners.
We look forward to continuing to work with the Bulletin and others to turn back from the doorstep of doom.
Earlier this week BBC Future published How to Read the Doomsday Clock, a background piece by CSER Academic Programme Manager, SJ Beard.