Three Minutes to Midnight: Can We Turn the Clock Back in Time?

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

With atomic scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” two minutes closer to midnight and a report from the National Climatic Data Center confirming that 2014 was the hottest year on record, Congress is trying to move us closer to ecocide. Reversing course will require urgent, concerted action.

On January 22, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the minutes hand of its “Doomsday Clock” ahead two minutes, from five minutes before midnight to three minutes before midnight. The clock envisions the life span of human civilization as a period of 24 hours. Thus when scientists decide to move the minutes hand ahead by two minutes, this means that they consider us to be drawing closer to the end of our time. With only three minutes left, we don’t have much leeway.

The analogy, however, is not perfect, for there’s an important difference between a real clock and the Doomsday Clock. A real clock, as long as its batteries are working, will always move forward, from second to second and minute to minute. The Doomsday Clock, in contrast, does not have to move forward, for apart from its astrophysical constraints, human civilization is not rolling along a one-way track toward some predestined end where everything comes to a stop. The minute hand on the clock of civilization could well stand still, or indeed even move in reverse, from the danger zone back toward safety. We can, perhaps, delay our final dénouement and flourish – even for many more centuries.

The hand has not moved forward because a giant meteor is about to crash into Central Europe, or because a ring of volcanoes is due to erupt from France to Siberia, or because alien invaders from a distant galaxy are about to land in the American Corn Belt. No, the hand of the clock has moved forward, from five minutes to three minutes before midnight, because of human activity itself. It has moved forward because of bad choices, programs and policies imposed by those at the wheels of power.

The Bulletin cited in particular two factors as the basis for its decision to advance the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock. One is the unchecked increase in climate change, the other the modernization of nuclear weapons systems. Both are clearly reflective of misguided choices, and the scientists spared no punches in laying the blame where it deserved to fall: on world leaders who failed to act “with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.” Some scientists pointed to the role that nuclear weapons have played in heightening the danger; others stressed the failure to stem climate change. One board member, Richard Somerville, emphasized that “efforts at reducing global emissions of heat-trapping gases have so far been entirely insufficient to prevent unacceptable climate disruption . . . The resulting climate change will harm millions of people and will threaten many key ecological systems on which civilization relies.”

The Heat Is Up

As a reminder of the urgency of our situation, another report – this one coming from the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA – confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. According to the report summary, “the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880.” During 2014, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24°F (almost .7°C) above the 20th century average – the highest on record. The globally-averaged land surface temperature was 1.80°F (1.00°C) above the 20th century average, the fourth highest on record. The globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.03°F (0.57°C) above the 20th century average, again the highest on record.

Stated in the abstract, such figures may offer our minds little to get a grip on. So let images take the place of words. The image just below reveals at a glance the extent to which 2014 land and ocean temperatures deviated from the average. The image clearly shows that, with a few exceptions – including the eastern third of the United States – temperature increases spanned the globe. Europe was hit the hardest, but every continent was affected, and the oceans too, a critical ecosystem, also warmed “from sea to shining sea.”


The higher temperatures of 2014 were not an aberration, but consistent with overall trends. The graph below,  also from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, shows how the global mean temperature has steadily risen over the past half century. After a phase of fluctuations between the 1930s and 1960s, global temperatures suddenly started to climb from the 1970s on, mounting ever higher like a flight of steps.


A warmer planet means not only more bizarre and destruction spells of petulant weather – more droughts and floods and brutal heat waves – but also a mounting threat of feedback loops. The most ominous of these is the release of methane, a process that has already started. On a 20-year time scale, methane has a greenhouse effect 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide; on a century time scale, it’s about 23 times more potent. A veritable time bomb of the stuff, billions of tons, is stored beneath the Arctic permafrost and deep under the ocean’s floors. In the Arctic region, it exists in the form of frozen hydrates, which lock the gas safely below the surface. However, as temperatures steadily grow warmer, the frost melts, unlocking the repositories of methane. Then, in bubbles and belches, the methane will emerge, like a deadly dragon awakened from a long sleep, wreaking havoc on the earth’s fragile ecosystems.

The explosion of the “methane bomb” could flood the atmosphere with enough gigatons of carbon to push global temperatures beyond the sustainability level for human civilization. Then the Doomsday Clock will cross the remaining three minutes and reach the midnight mark. That could mean the true “end of history,” though in a different sense than that conceived by Francis Fukuyama. Indeed, it could bring to an end nature’s audacious experiment with a reckless species that prematurely named itself homo sapiens, “the wise humans.”

Congress Kicks In

The irony in this species name was already evident last month when the Senate voted on a proposal by Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), stating that human activity contributes “significantly” to climate change. The measure won, but just barely, by a vote of 50 to 49. Thus, while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity underlies global warming, those who actually wield the power to curtail climate change are divided down the middle over the question whether we are even capable of doing something about it. Half our senators, and a great majority of our representatives in the junior house of Congress, stand on the side of denial.

It is probably such obtuseness – along with generous gifts from the fossil fuel corporations – that explains the refusal of Congress to tackle the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. Far from resisting the lure of Big Oil, on January 29, the Senate passed a bill approving construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The measure had bilateral support, garnering 62 votes in favor, 30 opposed. The Senate vote follows a House vote earlier in January, of 266-153, in support of the pipeline. President Obama still has the authority to make the final decision regarding construction. He has said that he would veto any bill approving the pipeline that crosses his desk, but his objection to the congressional vote rests on procedural grounds rather than on a considered decision. His actual decision still remains undetermined, awaiting the completion of an environmental impact study.

If constructed, the Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day from the tar sands pits of Alberta, Canada, to US refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen, is considered one of the dirtiest, most polluting substances on the planet, more carbon intensive even than petroleum. The extraction of the oil from tar sands requires huge amounts of energy and water. Its transport by pipeline poses grave threats to precious water and farmland along the route. And approval of the pipeline would let the fossil fuel industry know who’s really in charge of the planet’s destiny. It would be tantamount to an announcement that profit has finally triumphed over planet, that all the earth’s remaining stores of fossil fuels are fair game for extraction, sale and consumption.

Every day, more and more fossil fuels are being pumped up from the earth and seas – coal, oil and natural gas – far more than we can safely burn. Since the 1980s, we’ve had warnings, loud and clear enough, that we’re gambling with our collective future. We’re already at three minutes to midnight. However, though it’s late, it may yet not be too late to turn the clock backward. But for this to happen, drastic action will be needed, a full-scale collaborative effort undertaken with the vigor that enabled us to prevail against fascism in World War II.

If we can unite around this effort, if we can phase out nuclear weapons, let fossil fuels remain in the ground, and switch over to a clean-energy economy, we might turn the clock back. We might reverse it by five minutes, by 10 minutes, even by hours before midnight. But if we continue with business as usual, letting the giant carbon corporations dictate policy, the clock will continue to advance. When midnight arrives, we’ll reap the consequences of our folly: the death blow to civilization, the moment of ecological suicide.

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One response to “Three Minutes to Midnight: Can We Turn the Clock Back in Time?

  1. The 2009 documentary film “Petropolis” shows the environmental destruction caused by tar sands bitumen extraction in Canada.