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The Doomsday Clock sends the wrong climate message

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
The Doomsday Clock stands in a broadcast studio before a virtual news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it has moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight.

“90 seconds to midnight” may sound like the title of a low-budget action movie, but the phrase is trending for other reasons. The infamous Doomsday Clock recently hit its most dire prediction to date: 90 seconds to midnight. Midnight, of course, symbolizes the extinction of humanity — Armageddon.

The clock was created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and experts meet twice a year to decide whether or not to move its hands. Ironically, there’s no exact science behind the process. However, the clock isn’t meant to realistically or scientifically measure the risk of human extinction, but rather to begin conversations about the threats we face. As the clock celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, the group wrote, “The Doomsday Clock is many things all at once: It’s a metaphor, it’s a logo, it’s a brand, and it’s one of the most recognizable symbols in the past 100 years.”

Critics of the clock may rightly point out that the lack of straightforward process and objectivity lends itself to virtue signaling. For example, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the clock was set just two minutes from midnight. Now, as our world faces the mounting threat of climate change and war in Ukraine, it sits just one minute and 30 seconds away.

While the clock is supposed to provide an opportunity for dialogue, in practice, it attracts mockery. Telling the world that we’re a symbolic minute and 30 seconds away from the end of humankind doesn’t exactly make for productive conversations about nuclear weapon disarmament. Frankly, no one is learning about climate change for the first time because a group of scientists moved hands on a clock. By framing these subjects in this context, we detract from the already robust dialogue happening on essential solutions.

Rhetoric intended to shock people to action is why more than half of young people today have environmental anxiety, and another 39 percent are hesitant to have children due to climate change. Despite what some will assert, this is not raising awareness or encouraging action — it’s essentially psychological abuse of young people.

There is a path forward to avoid the worst effects of climate change and adapt to the ones we’re already experiencing. The scenario in which we only have 12 years to live is can be highly misleading and shouldn’t be the go-to talking point on climate change. Yes, we still must take swift action on climate change to lower future and existing emissions, but environmental challenges are ongoing and evolving; there won’t be a time when we’ve either wholly failed or succeeded in our fight against climate change.

To address climate change — or any other challenge our world faces — we cannot continue to employ alarmist rhetoric or symbolic gestures. Instead, we should focus on taking concrete action and highlighting encouraging steps we’ve taken forward. The point of fighting climate change is to build a better future for the next generation; immobilizing people with anxiety and despair is not only deeply unproductive, it actively holds us back.

The goal of climate action must be to move toward decarbonization and prioritize adaptation efforts to minimize loss of life and property in frontline communities. There is no perfect solution, but there are countless ways to combat climate change. As my organization, the American Conservation Coalition, lays out, planting trees and restoring ecosystems, lowering regulatory barriers on emissions-reducing technologies and driving down costs of clean energy are all climate-friendly paths forward.

Climate change is a threat, but we must adjust our thinking to make it a surmountable challenge, not an existential crisis that will end society as we know it. An approach to climate change that instills hope and optimism is long overdue. As we have seen, fear only leads to paralysis.

Danielle Butcher Franz is the executive vice president of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow her on Twitter: @DaniSButcher

Tags climate activism Climate change climate science Doomsday Clock Fossil fuels Global warming Renewable energy young people

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