Q&A: Sivan Kartha on how climate affected the Doomsday Clock

Written by Emily Yehle

Friday, 26 January 2018 00:58

SEI 2018 QandA doomsday350SEI Senior Scientist Sivan Kartha (left) speaks at the unveiling of the 2018 Doomsday Clock, which was set 30 seconds closer to midnight.  Photo: The Hastings Group

On Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that the end of humanity is near: it’s 2 minutes to an apocalyptic “midnight.” That’s 30 seconds closer than last year.

The Doomsday Clock is set every year by a board of scientists and nuclear experts. SEI Senior Scientist Sivan Kartha is one of them, lending his expertise in climate equity and policy to the deliberations. Though the nuclear landscape took center stage in this year’s Clock, climate played an important part as well. 

Dr. Kartha answered a few questions about his role on the board – and how humanity can keep away from midnight.

Q: What is your role in setting the Doomsday Clock?

SK: I am a member of the science and security board that makes the determination each year of the setting of the clock – whether to move it forward, whether to move it back, whether to keep it the same. It’s composed of sixteen experts on nuclear issues, on climate issues, on emerging technologies.

I chair the climate sub-committee, which means I open up the discussion on climate and give my three or four or five cents worth and give an overview as I see it. Then everybody weighs in with their experience and expertise and insights. I definitely don’t play any privileged role in actually making the determinations, but merely help kick off the discussion.

Q: How did climate play a role in this year’s Clock?

SK: For the last couple of years, emissions looked like they were plateauing and people had even said, “Hey maybe we’ve reached peak carbon.” Well turns out that this past year, emissions resumed their stubborn rise. So that’s a check mark in the wrong column.

Another thing is just in terms of the climate itself – man, is it biting back! Not only intense hurricanes and forest fires and droughts and heatwaves, but the Arctic ice cap also reached its smallest maximum this year, breaking the record for the third year in a row. This is a big deal... we rely on the ice cap to reflect sunlight and keep the earth’s temperature stable. Now, it’s clear, we have kicked off feedbacks that are compounding our own failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

So the climate system itself and the specific ways that we’re provoking it have definitely continued apace, or even accelerated.

Q: How do you think SEI’s work addresses the issues that bring the Clock closer to midnight?

SK: How close the climate problem is pushing us toward doomsday is much more than a matter of atmospheric concentration and emission rates. It’s much more than a matter of what the most recent climate disasters have been. It’s equally about our social and institutional and political ability deal with it.

So SEI’s experience and expertise in looking at those institutions and understanding those policies and assessing which are effective ones and which are not is very much germane to the science and security board’s deliberations.

Q: Does your expertise, climate equity, come into the Doomsday Clock discussion?

SK: It very much does. It has everything to do with whether our institutions are actually able to deal with the problem. This is a global commons problem, and we need everybody to contribute to solving it. And the only way countries and communities and households will contribute to solving it is if the solution being offered seems like a fair deal, if it seems like this works for them. There will continue to be major resistance – on the international scale if countries are feeling they’re not getting a fair deal, or even in communities like Appalachia if they feel they’re not getting a fair deal.

Q: Last year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cited Trump’s election as part of the reason for moving the clock closer to midnight. How did the realization of the Trump administration – and its decisions – play into this year’s clock?

SK: The steps that we’ve seen Trump take -- clearly they’re a step backward, clearly they’re not helping us meet our climate objectives. But there also haven’t been any huge surprises. He appointed avowed climate denialists to top positions, he started rolling back climate policy, he’s formally announced the plan to withdraw from Paris. He’s basically followed through on the precise process of derailing U.S. climate policy that he made very clear from the start he was planning to do.  But all that was kind of priced in last year’s Clock.

The more important question for this year was: How did the rest of the world outside of the White House respond to that? Did it cause things to unravel? Or did it meet a reassuring and affirming resistance? Thankfully, it has been more the latter. Other countries reaffirmed their commitment to climate action. And within in the United States, there’s been this huge “We Are Still In” movement of states, cities, business, faith-based communities, reaffirming their commitment to climate action and global cooperation.

Q: With the world so close to midnight, is there hope?

SK: There’s hope because these are problems of our own making for which there are imaginable solutions. There have been endless studies  about what we would need to do with emissions in order to keep warming below a tolerable level. We know that that’s technologically possible. We know that it’s economically possible. We know we can do it.

It’s a matter of political will. We’re not at a point where we are heading over the cliff already and there’s nothing that can be done.

So that’s the reason for hope. We know that political contexts can change and sometimes they can change fantastically quickly. And when problems present themselves – providing we’re not willfully ignoring them – human resolve and human ingenuity generally manages to come up with a solution.

Read more about the Doomsday Clock

Read more about Sivan Kartha's work at SEI