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Doomsday clock moves closest to catastrophe it’s ever been

Australia's bushfires indicate oncoming catastrophe. Images: Getty

An international measure of how close the world is to cataclysm has recorded its worst ever figure, and nuclear activity, climate change and the associated denial are to blame. 

That’s according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2020 Doomsday Clock decision. The Doomsday Clock measures the state of the world, and when the clock strikes midnight, it signals apocalyptic conditions.

This week, the Doomsday Clock was moved from two minutes to midnight to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest the clock has ever been to global catastrophe. 

“Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond,” the decision reads. 

“The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season was singled out as a symptom of climate change and climate change denial. 

The researchers noted the “disappointing” UN climate conference in Madrid, where Australia was accused of “cheating” in its decision to employ clever accounting through carryover credits to meet its climate target.

“If you want this carryover it is just cheating. Australia was willing in a way to destroy the whole system, because that is the way to destroy the whole Paris agreement,” Laurence Tubiana, a former French environment minister and architect of the Paris accord, told the Financial Times in December 2019.

The Doomsday Clock researchers said global politics was beset by “lip service”, noting that while some governments referred to a climate emergency, few acted in accordance with such warnings. 

“Exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels continues to grow. A recent UN report finds that global governmental support and private sector investment have put fossil fuels on course to be over-produced at more than twice the level needed to meet the emissions-reduction goals set out in Paris.”

In August last year, the Australia Institute found Australia is the third-largest exporter of carbon dioxide in fossil fuels, ranking behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The research, which measured fossil fuel exports in terms of their carbon-dioxide emissions potential, found that Australia was mining carbon dioxide potential in fuels at around 10 times the global average.

"Now is the time to come together – to unite and to act,” said Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in announcing the Doomsday clock change.

"We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds, not hours, or even minutes,"

New tech could cause economic ‘chaos’

A comparison of an original and deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In addition to climate change risks, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ said ‘deepfake’ technology poses a major threat.

“The recent emergence of so-called ‘deepfakes’—audio and video recordings that are essentially undetectable as false—threatens to further undermine the ability of citizens and decision makers to separate truth from fiction,” the researchers said. 

“The resulting falsehoods hold the potential to create economic, social, and military chaos, increasing the possibility of misunderstandings or provocations that could lead to war, and fomenting public confusion that leads to inaction on serious issues facing the planet.”

In the lead-up to last year’s UK election, a video of Boris Johnson appearing to endorse opponent Jeremy Corbyn circulated the internet. However, the video was a deppfake. 

According to the chief financial officer at consultancy firm, Kearney, this is a clear example of the risk deepfakes pose.

“Cybercriminals have already fooled a company into making a $234,000 wire transfer using an AI-powered deepfake of its CEO’s voice – and who knows how many other stories have gone unreported?” she said in a piece for the World Economic Forum.

“Recently, one of my team received a WhatsApp voice message from someone pretending to be our managing partner. Others received an email, supposedly from me, asking for a wire transfer to be made. In both cases, the phishing attempts didn’t succeed, but it was human instinct rather than formal security controls that saved the day.”

She said deepfakes are “probably the most sinister” technology seen yet. 

“To me this gives organisations an even more important responsibility than any cybersecurity measures they have in place.”

Doomsday Clock history

The Doomsday Clock was founded in 1947 by scientists at the University of Chicago who had helped develop the first atomic weapons. At the time, the clock was set at seven minutes from midnight.

The clock was set at two minutes to midnight in 2018 – the same urgency as when the world was in the grips of the Cold War. 

The furthest the world has been from midnight was in 1991, with the Cold War over and the US and Russia cutting their nuclear arsenals. At that time, the clock was 17 minutes from midnight.

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