The University of Chicago publishes the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), which was created in the years just after World War II — 1947 to be precise. Among its other activities, it assesses the risk of annihilation from nuclear war with its most famous piece of rhetoric: the Doomsday Clock, which charts the threat by adjusting the minute hand of the clock figuratively a few minutes toward or back from midnight, which represents a “time’s up” mark. (Oddly, the graphical representations I’ve seen are usually timelines or x–y coordinate graphs, not actual clockfaces.) The Doomsday Clock was back in the news a few days ago, when the minute hand was adjusted from 7 minutes to 5 minutes until midnight.
What’s interesting about this latest adjustment is that global warming has apparently overtaken nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to civilization. I’ve insisted for years that global warming operates on a geological time scale, making it nearly impossible to predict or observe from within the bubble of our much smaller human timescale, but the phrase is nonetheless used to describe the climate change (warming trend) we are currently experiencing, which occurs on an observable timescale. This is probably the case because climate change is a global effect, even if the warming/cooling trends take thousands of years to fully observe (at least in the past). Warming due to climate change will probably take some years yet to manifest fully — 30 to 50 seem to be typical estimates — and its full fury, or its effect on humankind, will take a bit longer than that as the ecosystem continues its collapse in stages. But there appears to be little doubt that it’s going to happen.
What’s especially curious to me is that it was predicted and warned against long ago, as early as the late 19th century, in fact, when petroleum and other fossil fuels were just beginning to be used in industrial quantities. The mainstream media, in its collective wisdom, has only just recently determined, however, that the story bears telling, as the issue has now reached a level of undeniability and consensus that the public has gotten interested (but not yet motivated to act). I saw one top story of 2006 that says global warming has finally been demonstrated. A little late to the party, I think.