By Stefan Pedersen
We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.
– The Russell-Einstein Manifesto
In 1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issued a warning to humanity about the danger that nuclear weapons posed to life and civilization. The motivation for the warning by these two leading authorities in, respectively, science and philosophy, was that the stockpiles of increasingly powerful nuclear weapons, first invented and put to use a decade previously, had now grown large enough to endanger the existence of human civilization itself. Their groundbreaking initiative included several other world-renowned scientists, not least the Streitist and Nobel Prize laureate Linus Pauling.
Today, the threat of nuclear war is again heightened and gaining prominence on the global governance agenda, together with new concerns related to, for instance, the development of ever more advanced AI (artificial intelligence). However, two other recent major initiatives have more in common with the Einstein-Russell Manifesto: the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement, both of which have been signed and promoted by a significant number of scholars in relevant fields.
The scholars and scientists behind all these initiatives, from Einstein and Russell onwards, can now be identified as early adopters of Anthropocene norms. If we today want planetwide democracy, this project should be designed in ways that value the input of legitimately concerned experts, such as these, over that of more untrustworthy actors – foremost here various corporations and national governments that tend to prioritize short-term interests over the interests of humanity and the wider planetary biosphere.
Contemporary modes of global governance cannot handle the degree of complexity inherent to the planetary challenges confronting humanity today. This void, where democratically legitimated global governance ought to have been, has been filled instead by two types of actors: corporations eager to pre-empt more consequential government regulation and learned communities acting on their collective expertise in an effort to provoke governments into action before the relevant disaster strikes. When the motives of these groups are compared, it seems clear that public decision-making should ideally follow the lead of the learned communities. This is especially the case when a substantial learned community has established a wide consensus on a particular topic, such as the long-term consequences of fossil fuels use. Smaller expert milieus can be subject to the capture of specific interests and could also be composed of individuals advocating a particular ideology, for instance, neoliberalism.
There is a well-known conflict in industry self-regulation between profit motive and public concerns. Industry tends to be pro-active and step in to fill the governance void when the need to assuage public fears has arisen. A recent example is the Frontier Model Forum, established to ostensibly ensure the responsible development of AI. This effort has the appearance of a public relations initiative from the main players: The same companies positioned to benefit most from radical innovations in AI are engaged in this self-regulation initiative. Expecting these companies to act in both their own and in humanity’s best interests in situations where that trade-off is brought to the fore would be naïve.
The Russell-Einstein Manifesto was published in July 1955 and discussed the dangers of nuclear weapons.
The manifesto also implored world leaders toward peaceful conflict resolution.
The signatories of the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto represent an early learned community acting in the species interest. The Manifesto helped raise an awareness that later led to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The TPNW came into force in 2020 after reaching the required signatures of 50 countries. Currently, the TPNW has been signed by 92 sovereign states, 68 of which have subsequently become a full party to it.
Most countries of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia are either parties or signatories to the TPNW. Not one of the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) and no single NATO country is a signatory. The West – if conceived to exclude Latin America and the Caribbean, but to include Singapore, South Korea, and Japan – is therefore only represented by Austria, Ireland, Malta, Liechtenstein, the Holy See, and New Zealand. In 2022, the conduct of the nine nuclear armed states was deemed “manifestly incompatible with the TPNW’s obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons”.
The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement, which advocate, respectively, the banning of fossil fuels and solar geoengineering, are recent examples of learned communities stepping in to provoke needed global governance of crucial climate and global warming related issues. These climate initiatives could advance from shaping current scholarly norms to dictating future law for the planet as a whole, but success would – as the nuclear weapons case exemplifies – require either the concrete support of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council or, at some future point, world order reform.
The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The idea of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty was first suggested in an academic paper in 2019. The scientific rationale for ending the use and production of fossil fuels, which is what the treaty ultimately aims to accomplish, is the established causal link between global warming and CO₂ emissions from the burning of coal, gas and oil. The treaty has been endorsed by the national governments of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, the European Parliament, the World Health Organization, nearly eighty sub-national governments and cities, over half a million individuals, and supported in separate letters signed by more than 3,000 scientists and 101 Nobel laureates.
The three primary aims of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty are, according to its own Briefing: A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the following:
1. End new exploration and production. A world-wide moratorium on the development of all new oil, gas and coal reserves is needed to prevent expansion of unburnable fossil fuel inventories; to protect workers, communities, and assets from becoming stranded; and avoid locking in catastrophic and irreversible global heating. The International Energy Agency confirms the world has a “viable but narrow” pathway to 1.5°C, but such pathway “includes, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants.”
2. Phase out existing stockpiles and production of fossil fuels. Phasing out fossil fuel production in line with 1.5°C will require limits on extraction, removal of production subsidies, dismantling unnecessary infrastructure, and shifting support to safer and more sustainable alternatives. As noted, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) Production Gap Report confirms that fossil fuel production must decline by at least 6% per year to avoid more than a one-third risk of exceeding 1.5°C — or roughly 50% by 2030.
3. Accelerate a just and equitable transition. The scale of the challenge demands urgent collective action to address the needs of dependent workers, communities, and countries. Special help ought to be given to countries dependent on imports and exports of fossil fuels, and those that are poorer to diversify their economies and transition towards 100% renewable energy.
From the above list we can see that the goals of ending investment in, and extraction of, fossil fuels and infrastructure are meant to be aligned with a just transition away from fossil fuels. Accomplishing a just transition would arguably not simply soften the impact on poorer communities, but also turn what is perceived as cost into an opportunity to improve the living conditions of the affected people in the short term, while safeguarding the planet’s habitability for all of life on Earth.
The financing of transition away from fossil fuels needs to be resolved quickly. Renowned hard science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has recently suggested that this process should include compensating the petro-states, which currently house about half the world’s population, for the value of their lost assets. This is an interesting suggestion, with precedence in the Slave Compensation Act of 1837 which awarded previous slave owners in the British Empire for their loss. One problem with this solution would be the apparent reward it allocates to companies and regimes that have been the slowest to divest away from fossil fuels – unless e.g. compensation is given for the fossil ex-assets which were already discovered but had been deliberately left undrilled for in the ground.
Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement. According to its initiators it addresses new concerns stemming from “a set of entirely speculative technologies to reduce incoming sunlight on earth in order to limit global warming.” The prospect of solar geoengineering or “solar radiation modification” has been raised recently in The New York Times and discussed in green-tech friendly publications, while the U.S. government has started financing its research.
Solar geoengineering is in practice all about reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space before they reach far enough into the atmosphere to contribute fully to heating the Earth’s atmosphere and surface. This can for instance be achieved by planes releasing reflective particles at high altitudes. In theory, with enough planes releasing reflective particles a sufficient proportion of the Sun’s rays could be reflected to lower the Sun’s capacity to heat the Earth. The long-term consequences of seeding the atmosphere with these specific particles on a massive scale are unknown, both in terms of pollution and towards the intended effect. We do know, however, that flying contributes to global warming. If implemented on a scale where it can affect global temperatures, this method will potentially make things worse rather than better.
The Sun’s rays can also be interrupted further away from Earth, as would be the case with reflector shields employed in orbit. A common concern with the release of particles in the atmosphere and shields in space is that this technological fix could be initiated and controlled unilaterally by, for instance, one of the great powers or a rogue billionaire. The latter is now conceivable outside the realm of James Bond movies thanks to the private rocket building capabilities recently attained by some of the world’s richest individuals, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. In the case of unilateral national action, there is considerable risk that a major power might seek to alter the temperature to suit its own geographical location without concern for the biosphere and/or human civilization as a whole.
For this and other reasons, the initiators of the Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement call for the following five core commitments and measures:
1. No public funding. The commitment to prohibit national funding agencies from supporting the development of technologies for solar geoengineering, domestically and through international institutions.
2. No outdoor experiments. The commitment to ban outdoor experiments of solar geoengineering technologies.
3. No patents. The commitment to not grant patent rights for technologies for solar geoengineering, including supporting technologies such as for the retrofitting of airplanes for aerosol injections.
4. No deployment. The commitment to not deploy technologies for solar geoengineering if developed by third parties.
5. No support in international institutions.
Lessons for Planetary Institutions
The initiatives discussed here, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement, have their bases in scientific and academic communities – i.e. learned communities – which now are capable of urging both action (against fossil fuels) and caution (on solar geoengineering). This is especially true where political actors in leading states and international institutions are either too compromised by their partnerships with state oil conglomerates and/or private oil firms or are too ignorant of, or unconcerned about, the risks involved to take the lead themselves.
Given the precedent set by The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has so far only seen the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons grow (even when nearly half the world’s countries are now its signatories), would the UN General Assembly adopting these treaties, and having any number of the less powerful states sign them, make much difference? The thing to recognize is that not all countries are ultimately equal in the world. In international relations it matters a lot more if a major power commits to a course of action, than if many smaller ones do.
Articulating and presenting these suggestions for treaties is part of a longer strategic effort. The more their advocates succeed in gaining public and political support, the clearer it will become that the states and corporations that continue to sell and support the unperturbed use of fossil fuels are willing to risk the future of the planet for a profit, for now, in their own exceedingly short-term interest.
But the longer strategic effort of the treaty promoters risks falling afoul of the more immediate short-term goals, which is to get the treaties enacted with the help of the UN General Assembly. Arguably, they could be better consciously conceived of as integral parts of a longer-term strategic vision, which is not how they are presented today. Since it is primarily the governments of great powers that can act against the planetary interest with impunity in today’s world, that longer-term strategic vision should include a plan to make the treaties inviolable through eventually securing compliance also by the greatest powers, i.e., by their populations that, one way or the other, decide what those governing them get away with.
A re-modelled world organization should have as its primary aim to ensure the enduring collective security of the Earth and humankind. That requires three things: First, that laws pertaining to securing the future of the species are enforced by institutions worldwide. Second, that any laws enacted for worldwide enforcement are democratically sanctioned. Third, that these collective laws pertaining to the species as a whole are evidence-based and in alignment with the latest scientific recommendations.
How can these three imperatives, which admittedly exist in tension with each other, be systematically incorporated in the design of whichever planetwide institutional structure should eventually either upgrade or replace the United Nations? As a first step, we need to recognize the wicked mega-problem posed by the need to centralize law-making internationally without also centralizing political power over all individuals. This is in significant respects represented by the previously discussed initiatives on fossil fuels and solar geo-engineering.
Freedom is a paramount concern. The back-and-forth that free public discussion provides is beneficial in that the ever-progressing synthesis reached through a continuous series of challenging and challengeable thought is the very foundation for the desirable advancement of human civilization.
This is why the world needs not only democratic elections, where the best argument can win through public presentation and deliberation of ideas, but also a free press committed to spreading knowledge about the world, rather than propagandistic rhetoric and falsehoods. To ensure that future generations possess the ability to participate as critically thinking, free, individuals, universities and other educational establishments ought to be managed so that they are capable of catering to everyone who would like to know more about anything.
Art in all its forms should be recognized as a means of human expression that includes both visions of a better future and provocative criticisms of the status quo. It is therefore a form of expression worthy of a pedestal for the exact same reasons we should hold democracy in the highest regard by seeing it as a political process rooted in the life of a society free to criticize those that govern it.
With all this in mind, we also need to be able to yield to critical expertise when promoted by learned communities particularly at the level of planetary civilization. Not because scientists are authorities that ought to be adhered to in all things, but because with the invention of nuclear weapons, the extreme overuse of fossil fuels, and the technologies now available to mitigate the Earth’s temperature, experts have become – in their fields – potentially the final arbiters of the fate of all species, not just our own. We have to learn to listen intently to what they say and not let more myopic interests overrule the warnings of planetary perils coming from a united scientific and scholarly community.
We need to hardwire our future institutions with the mission of planetary security, while requiring that they be open to democratic deliberation and unprecedented societal criticism. A world society geared toward promoting the critical faculties of its citizens is the precondition to achieve such goals. In addition, the need for a technocratic element needs to be acknowledged. Expertise is needed and should be placed above – not below – interests with potentially nefarious agendas in our institutional hierarchy.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the limitations of learned communities if we want to invoke their role as legitimate planetary actors. A learned community is legitimate when it is composed of an interdisciplinary cross-section of a globally representative community – and potentially much less so if it is composed of the members of one institution in a single and specific domestic setting. It should also be a given that the recommendations of a learned community must be founded in objective facts and that the consequences of these are properly interpreted. State-of-the-art science is a lengthy and ideally never-ending collaborative process. Just like desirable democracy in the planetary interest ought to be.
Stefan Pedersen has signed in support of both the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Solar Geoengineering Non-Use Agreement, he has played no part in the creation of either. Pedersen is a Research Fellow with the Streit Council.
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