Category - Peace

1
Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament
2
Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si
3
Calvin and the Caliphate
4
The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan
5
The human right to water
6
The Pope, ISIS and U.S. Military Intervention
7
The God Squad
8
Our social commons: two climate challenges
9
Can Nuclear Deterrence Survive the Global Resurgence of Religion?
10
Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Atomic Anniversaries and Nuclear Disarmament

What kind of peace do we seek? The Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the time of Jesus, described how the Pax Romana was experienced by people, like the Celts and Jews, who had been conquered by the Romans: “They make a desolation and call it peace.”

Seventy years ago, the U.S. made a desolation, and called it peace. The U.S. sought an unconditional peace with Japan, before the Soviets invaded Japan in WWII. Toward this end, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than a quarter million people, mostly civilians.

As Christians, this is not the sort of peace we seek. Jesus of Nazareth made it clear that he was not in favor of a desolate peace, a negative peace, based on the threat of military destruction. At the time, Catholic and religious leaders were some of the few voices raised in opposition to atomic weapons. The Holy See argued “the new death instruments” were “catastrophic.” Atomic weapons raised a “sinister shadow on the future of humanity.”

Their concerns were sadly prescient. Army Air force leaders argued for more atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The world’s nuclear arsenal rapidly grew from a handful of U.S. atomic weapons in 1945, to over 66,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, primarily in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Today, many citizens mistakenly believe the nuclear danger largely receded with the end of the Cold War twenty five years ago. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons present huge dangers today, from threats of accident, to hundreds of thefts of fissile materials and/or weapons, to proliferation and use by terrorists and insurgents such as ISIL. This is a real concern, not merely the stuff of action movies. ISIL stole over 80 pounds of uranium from Mosul University in Iraq this past year. While that material is not weapons-grade, it could be used in a dirty bomb that would spread panic and radiation.

Pointing to the disastrous humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, religious communities have joined with secular advocates for deep reductions of nuclear weapons. Former “Cold Warriors” such as President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, and President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry, today all urge deep reductions in nuclear arms.   Pope Francis concurs.

The Japanese continue to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui put it in marking the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, “Our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation. We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism. To coexist we must abolish the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity that are nuclear weapons. Now is the time to start taking action.”

There are other paths to peace, that I discuss in the cover story of America magazine this week.  The Just Peace tool box gives us many proven methods to build lasting, sustainable peace, approaches that do not “make a desolation and call it peace.” We should use just peace and reconciliation approaches to nuclear disarmament.

Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, Latin for “Praise Be”, was released Thursday, June 18, which was also the first day of Ramadan for many Muslims. Ramadan is a month of fasting that fosters growth in God-consciousness and compassion for the needy. While fasting for Ramadan, I have been devoting time to reading Laudato Si, and find much there that fills me with great hope. Although Pope Francis leads the world’s Roman Catholics, his message is meant for all; while the trends in ecological destruction are grim, the document resounds with a positive ethic of compassion, justice, and spiritual awakening. Our unsustainable course towards catastrophic climate change demands urgent individual and collective changes in consciousness and behavior. As the highest profile religious appeal for addressing the greatest collective action challenge of our time, Laudato Si is a potentially game-changing step.

Important themes of Laudato Si will resonate with many Muslims. Praise is central to how nature and the cosmos are presented in the Islamic tradition, with humanity as part of nature’s fabric, in a position of stewardship. As Joseph Lumbard has described in “An Islamic Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:

“Among the world scriptures, the Quran provides a unique resource for building a new ecological paradigm. Grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, it presents a harmonious view of nature reminiscent of the Far East. In the Quran, “whatsoever is the heavens and on the earth glorifies God” (59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1). “The stars and the trees prostrate” (55:6), “the thunder hymns His praise” (13:13), and “unto God prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts” (22:18). In these and many other verses, the whole of creation is presented as a Divine symphony, for “there is no thing, save that it hymns His praise, though you do not understand their praise. Truly He is Clement, Forgiving” (Q 17:44).”.

Love is mentioned over 70 times in Laudato Si. Highlighting love is more likely to inspire change than an approach focused purely on cost benefit calculations. A Common Word Between Us, the path-breaking, authoritative Islamic teaching to promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians for the common good, centers on the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor. Together, these affirmations can support significant civic initiatives for environmental protection across religious and community lines.

This much-needed positive motivation does not mean that we can ignore the costs of inaction. As the Common Word document also asserts, a failure to work together threatens our worldly well-being. Laudato Si points boldly and clearly to the human sources of climate change. This captures an emerging moral consensus that the status quo is a path to disaster. Averting collective catastrophe and thus serving the common good requires collective action at many levels.

Laudato Si emphasizes acute sensitivity to debt, inequality, and poverty, and suggests differentiated responsibilities based on wealth and ability. Compassion and justice require voice for the most vulnerable and marginalized- those often left voiceless, who stand to suffer the most from climate change, while having contributed the least to the problem. The social and environmental dimensions cannot be considered in isolation, but should be treated integrally as a complex joint crisis. These social justice concerns will surely find many receptive Muslim audiences.

Laudato Si also questions consumerism, and challenges us to imagine a different way of living. Driven by human consumption and production, we face staggering loss of biodiversity – the rate of extinction in the 20th century was up to 100 times higher than it would have been without man’s impact, and pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations. Aside from the ethical problem that we are the species causing the loss of so many other species, we are also undermining our own well-being by “sawing off the limb we are sitting on”.

We have just experienced the warmest May on record, after the warmest start to a year on record, and we are headed towards making 2015 the warmest year on record. This March, we reached the 400 parts per million mark of carbon concentration in the atmosphere; 350 ppm is considered safe and 450ppm dangerous. Climate change exacerbates water crises, further straining water-stressed societies in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere, placing many people at serious risk. To the ethical and spiritual motivations for changing course, we can add pragmatic worldly self-interest: we are all downstream.

The upcoming international climate summit is one avenue for seeking change. But the problem cannot be treated as a matter for the top-level negotiators only. Without getting into specific policy debates, even if the summit succeeds in binding commitments to decarbonize, civic monitoring and action will still be needed to fulfill those commitments. Irrespective of the outcome of the summit, local initiatives will matter, particularly when linked by information networks and the trust that others are taking responsibility. The complex and changing problems favor a multi-scale approach, which encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, and helps to assess the costs and benefits of particular strategies.

While technological innovations hold important promise- and investment in renewable energy is needed as part of progressive elimination of fossil fuels- there remains a need for institutions to ensure appropriate use. Diverse social ecological contexts require diverse institutional arrangements. Laudato Si also references the principle of subsidiarity, which promotes local autonomy appropriate to capabilities. Together, these factors suggest that collective actions are needed at many levels to generate the institutions for sustaining our commons.

Muslims can and should engage substantively with Laudato Si. In keeping with stewardship, it is time to make positive changes where possible, to redouble our efforts as civic artisans in our communities, and to build broad solidarity for meaningful national and global commitments for the collective good.

Calvin and the Caliphate

ISIS fighters on parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, January 2014. (Reuters / Yaser Al-Khodor)

I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).

A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.

In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…”  Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.

The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan

In Canada’s Globe and Mail a few weeks ago I made the argument that as the battle for Tikrit raged, the world badly needed to break its track record of invasion followed by inaction. Now, Tikrit is taken and the countdown to Mosul is on.

But this is not the battle for Kobani, a city overwhelmed by nearly 400,000 refugees. Mosul is a major city of the Middle East, a city of 1.8 million at its height. Its humanitarian catastrophe has been compared to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. The postwar reconstruction plan we need should be taken from the same playbook. The Middle East needs a Yalta and a Potsdam: a postwar order before the victory march; a plan for how to bring people home.

A post-IS order, in other words, is not the panacea for the Levant. In fact, in an interview, Gen. David Petraeus outlined what he called worse concerns about the region than IS: “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by – and some guided by – Iran.”

As IS is rolled back by coalition forces – including in some cases Shiite militias – the danger of kidnappings and reprisal killings, mass evictions, and the corrosive abuses that so often follow on the heels of the politics of past evil is real and present.

The problem of what political scientist Daniel Philpott calls unjust peace, and the cycle of violence after mass atrocity, will persist long after a group calling itself IS is pushed back and defeated.

That problem is as much about how the militaries and militias conduct themselves in the now-and upcoming campaign to retake ISIS-controlled Iraq as when and what comes next. As coalition forces move forward, will the international community prove complicit in the kind of reprisal and revenge killings to come? Or is there a role for countries like Canada, not merely in the form of boots on the ground, but as partners in rebuilding a just peace that, even in the merest act of our presence, may prevent the worst of post-war reprisals?

Any just peace needs a plan of return, one which includes not only security, governance, and economic development, but reconciliation. We need a plan for people to come back to their homes, to their villages, safely, reclaim ownership, and somehow restore a sense of normalcy to life.

Christians, Yezidis, and – it must be remembered – an overwhelming number of Muslims have suffered terrible persecution under IS. The blood of martyrs soaks this region. Sadness saturates the soul. IS can and will be beaten, but we need to know what comes next. We need a practical plan to take us beyond the trauma. And we need that plan taking shape now, as part of, not secondary thought to, counter-invasion.

The counter-invasion may come as a rescue, but the larger part is a restoration. The harder part is the return. The region itself needs to take leadership on security and economic development, and the world needs to anticipate a better future. In the heart of Europe’s darkest hour the Allies planned an audacious postwar plan on the back of presumed victory. The Levant badly needs that audacity today.

The human right to water

Nearly 5 years ago, the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, and asserted that these are essential prerequisites to the realization of all other rights. March 22 is World Water Day. Consider that 2.6 billion people today do not have access to basic sanitation, and 884 million do not have access to safe drinking water. Without major collective actions,  increasing scarcity in coming years threatens increased violence, disease, poverty, and hunger, according to this AP article on the new World Water Development Report:

“Many underground water reserves are already running low, while rainfall patterns are predicted to become more erratic with climate change. As the world’s population grows to an expected 9 billion by 2050, more groundwater will be needed for farming, industry and personal consumption.

The report predicts global water demand will increase 55 percent by 2050, while reserves dwindle. If current usage trends don’t change, the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs in 2030, it said.

Having less available water risks catastrophe on many fronts: crops could fail, ecosystems could break down, industries could collapse, disease and poverty could worsen, and violent conflicts over access to water could become more frequent.

“Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit,” the annual World Water Development Report said, noting that more efficient use could guarantee enough supply in the future.

The report, released in New Delhi two days before World Water Day, calls on policymakers and communities to rethink water policies, urging more conservation as well as recycling of wastewater as is done in Singapore. Countries may also want to consider raising prices for water, as well as searching for ways to make water-intensive sectors more efficient and less polluting, it said.”

The Pope, ISIS and U.S. Military Intervention

Much is being made of the Vatican’s uncharacteristic statements lending support for limited use of force against ISIS. The most recent came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative to the UN agencies in Geneva and Vienna. In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Tomasi said, “We have to stop this kind of genocide. Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t do something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.”

Archbishop Tomasi’s recent statement is consistent with statements by Pope Francis, who said last August, in response to questions about the U.S. bombing campaign, that, “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.”

Is the Vatican position on ISIS a sharp departure from recent Church teaching and action on the use of military force? It certainly is, if one considers the Church’s opposition to the Iraq interventions in 1991 and 2003, an increasingly strong emphasis on nonviolence in Church statements, and numerous papal warnings that “war is not the answer.”

But, in fact, the statements on ISIS are not charting a new, more militant position for the Church. The Catechism retains the Church’s traditional embrace of a highly restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition. Moreover, the statements on ISIS are very similar to earlier statements on the use of force against Al Qaeda and the right and duty of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other cases of genocide. The Church has long said and continues to say that there is just cause for the limited use of military force in exceptional circumstances. Specifically, it supports the Responsibility to Protect: the duty of the international community to intervene to protect civilians against mass killings and other egregious human rights violations when the government is unable or unwilling to do so.

None of this suggests the Vatican is abandoning its healthy skepticism about the ability of military interventions to meet strict just war norms. Two issues are of special concern, especially for those concerned about the implications for U.S. policy.

First is legitimate authority. Consistent with its strong support for strengthening international law and international institutions, the Vatican has called for the UN Security Council to determine what means are necessary to deal with cases like ISIS. As the pope said last August, “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor.” Archbishop Tomasi reiterated this point: “It will be up the United Nations and its member states, especially the Security Council, to determine the exact form of intervention necessary, but some responsibility [to act] is clear.”

Why insist on UN Security Council authorization? After all, at least in Iraq, U.S. (and Iranian) intervention at the invitation of the Iraqi government may be justified as collective defense under article 51 of the UN Charter. The problem is that the Iraqi government’s moral and political legitimacy is in question. While the government has taken some positive steps to include Sunnis and Kurds in recent months, it remains largely sectarian and its efforts to combat ISIS risk exacerbating that sectarianism. Its reliance on Iranian and Shiite militias to retake Tikrit is the latest example.

In Syria, the need for UN Security Council authorization is even more clear, but less possible. It is more clear because there is a failed government and an anarchic situation with hundreds of rebel groups of various stripes. It is a classic case for invocation of the Responsibility to Protect. But it is less possible to get Security Council authorization due to differences among the Permanent 5. Unilateral intervention might be justified because the UN Security Council has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in response to the crisis in Syria. But unilateral intervention doesn’t solve the problem that there is no legitimate and credible government or opposition group to support.

Legitimate authority is closely connected to a second concern: finding morally appropriate and effective means. As Pope Francis clarified when he said there is just cause to stop ISIS: “I’m not saying bomb or make war, just stop.” Since the end of the Cold War, the Vatican has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene when whole populations are at risk. By intervention, it means a wide range of actions, only some of which involve military force. Efforts to cut off ISIS’ access to weapons, financing, oil markets, and new recruits are just one example of what needs to be done.

While limited military intervention also seems necessary, we must be brutally realistic about what that might achieve. For most of the past 12 years, the United States has bombed, fought, trained and armed the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. Is it reasonable to expect military intervention to produce significantly different results today than it has over the past decade? Without a serious and sustained political strategy to build a more democratic, human-rights respecting, and effective government in Iraq, military force will be of only limited effectiveness against ISIS, whose strength is, in part, a function of the Iraqi government’s political weakness.

And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What would be the objectives of military action? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government, too? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation? If the latter, who would undertake the Iraq-style occupation and nation building that would be necessary, and what grounds do we have for thinking that would succeed any better than it did in Iraq?

There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria.

The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.

The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.

The God Squad

The U.S. government now has a “God Squad.” Religious factors impact many U.S. foreign policy issues. The government needs a stronger toolbox to engage with religious actors and factors in foreign policy. It has been a long, hard road, but the U.S. government is increasing this capacity and commitment. This week Dr. Shaun Casey, Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Secretary of State John Kerry, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, headlined a panel discussion on “The Future of Religion and Diplomacy” to shine a light on the U.S. State Department’s efforts to help policy makers better understand and engage with the religious dimensions of world affairs. The event was hosted by the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, which does important work to educate people in the First Amendment principles of the U.S. Constitution. The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs has issued guidance to the Department of State and all U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world regarding engagement with religious actors and factors in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Also, several special envoys with responsibilities for religious foreign policy issues are being consolidated into the Religion and Global Affairs Office. This “God Squad” aims to improve the U.S. government’s capacities to effectively navigate the religious dimensions of foreign policy.

This process began in the 1990s, with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. Religion was neglected as a factor in foreign policy during the Cold War, as it was thought to be unimportant in the fight against “Godless Communism.” The fallacy of this view was shown in events from the Iranian revolution to the resurgence of religion with the fall of the Soviet Empire. The 1998 IRFA law created several institutions to promote religious freedom, the external, independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom outside of government, and within the State Department, the IRFA law created an Office of International Religious Freedom and an Ambassador of International Religious Freedom (a position now held by Amb. David Saperstein). The State Department IRF Office was charged with producing the annual IRF report. But it also was mandated to interact with civil society, including religious actors, persecuted groups, and human rights groups, as this would be necessary to gather the information for the report and to help guide U.S. foreign policy in this area. This small office, while important to promote religious freedom, was not enough to address all the areas where religion impacts U.S. foreign policy. It has been supplemented with a Special Representative to Muslim Communities (the position now held by Shaarik Zafar), the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (Ira Forman now holds this post), and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (Arsalan Suleman is Acting Special Envoy). Over a year ago, a new office of Religion and Global Affairs was created, directed by Special Representative Dr. Shaun Casey. Now these positions are consolidated into the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, bringing this expertise together. The office is located on the 7th Floor of the State Department, a sign of the importance of the issue to Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry noted at this week’s event that “Religion matters in the world today. If I were to go back to college today, I’d major in Comparative Religions.” Madame Secretary Albright concurred, picking up a theme from her book  The Mighty and the Almighty, noting the challenge before us lies in “harnessing the unifying potential of faith while containing its capacity to divide.”  The heartbreaking headlines from Syria show great challenges lie before us. Godspeed to the “God Squad.”

Our social commons: two climate challenges

The growing crises in ecological sustainability and identity politics are straining our social commons. As part of responding to both climate challenges, protect and invest in our social commons.

The doomsday clock has been moved to 3 minutes to midnight. Climate change, fed by carbon emissions, is expected to push us above the 2 degree temperature increase threshold in 30 years, based on current trends in usage of our carbon budget. This manmade crisis creates far-reaching issues of justice. Those best positioned to act unilaterally to protect themselves from climate change harm- in the near term- are the wealthy, who have also been the biggest contributors to the problem. Those most likely to suffer from it are the poor, who did the least to create the problem. Mitigation demands collective action in numerous arenas and at different levels. The scale, complexity, and number of related problems stretch our institutional capacities for addressing them collectively.

Meanwhile, our global identity-politics tensions are heating up, largely but not exclusively from the clash of civilizations narrative and various nationalisms. This latter form of climate change wears and rips at our social fabric, ultimately threatening to widen and escalate conflicts into humanity-encompassing mutual destruction. Public opinion in Europe and the US, particularly after the traumatic Paris attacks in January, has gravitated further towards a clash of civilizations mentality. Identity politics- my side, right or wrong- can be contrasted to principled deliberation about principles. Without redoubled efforts to provide meaningful avenues for addressing injustices, and to counter the identity clash story, a self-fulfilling prophecy will result.

Our social commons— the community space in which we meet and engage with the other to devise answers to our shared problems— is under strain. The best responses to both types of climate change start with invigorating our social commons to generate participatory answers. This means nurturing a more responsible global civics: acknowledging and affirming the humanity of the other through an ethic for mutual obligation, such as the Golden Rule; including religion, not solely for the pragmatics and semantics, but also for the consciousness of the intrinsic worth of nature; appreciating that diverse scales and social ecological settings require a polycentric approach, while supporting the critical functions of central government; and maintaining vigilance against the vigilantes on all sides, cooling identity-based conflict escalations and promoting cooperation for the common good.

Can Nuclear Deterrence Survive the Global Resurgence of Religion?

Vienna, Hoffburg Palace – Gerard Powers reminded us in September that disarmament cannot be forgotten. To the young, in which I easily include myself, deterrence theory, mutually assured destruction, and nuclear balance of power are relics of a by-gone era. Even when we teach or learn about nuclear weapons it has a feeling of something archaic, something that was, not something that is. Not things, not machines, that still squat in warehouses, coil in soils, and ride under oceans on launch ready alert.

But they remain. As a guest of the Nuclear Threat Initiative over the past several days we’ve explored transformations in war (‘unconventional war’) that make weapons of mass destruction less useful, breakages in the logic of deterrence from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world, and even – somewhat terrifyingly – the truth that the nuclear weapons we’re most in danger of have usually been our own.

A front runner in these conversations has been the Catholic Church, long opponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and now articulate spokespersons for the morality of even their mere possession. Religious sentiment has long been rallied against the use of nuclear weapons, but a shift seems to be coming, at least in the tone, from the Vatican and from senior Vatican officials at this conference, that even possession of nuclear weapons is an affront to the dignity of human kind. We are squandering the world’s wealth, lamented Pope Francis in a written address to the Vienna conference, on these arsenals. Estimates run that merely upgrading the weapons of the United States of America, crucially necessary because of the danger posed by dated nuclear technology, could run into the trillions. The cost of disarming and disposing of the same weapons runs to nearly the same, if not higher. Either way, a phenomenal bill is coming due on America’s – and the world’s – nuclear arsenal.

How to make this decision? It cannot be done trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of Realist deterrence, say the conference organizers. We must have what Pope Francis calls an ethic of solidarity. Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate that globalization makes us neighbours, but it does not make us brothers. The nuclear conversation, in the words of Hugh Gusterson, leaves the modern logic of rationalism and technological efficiency “impaled on itself.” We must have a new order, a new conversation, new moral sources that tell us why these weapons exist, why we have made them, and what we are going to do next. Next year is the 70-th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The impasse is real.

That conversation, crucially, must also include inter-religious voices. Vatican officials this morning noted that a key player in any dialogue is the Russian Orthodox Church – cutting off talk of a new cold war before it starts. “The Church,” said the same official, “must shoot high, because if we don’t do it, no one will.”

Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Our planet is losing its ability to sustain human life. That’s the premise of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Interstellar. Amid blight, dust, and skepticism about science and technology, a secret effort launches something even more improbable than a proverbial moon shot. Without getting into more detail and giving away the movie, what if we entered the story much earlier, and knew what we needed to know to prevent collective catastrophe- would we be able to make the needed changes?

 

This is about where we find ourselves now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the system is blinking red. In the most important  assessment of global climate change yet- a report based on 30,000 scientific papers- the panel has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are cut rapidly. At present rates we will use up our global “carbon budget” in 30 years, pushing us over the 2 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures- a threshold beyond which severe impacts are far more likely.

 

We need to decarbonize now to avert a tragedy of our climate commons. It’s the mother of all collective action problems: no single group or individual can solve it. Some individuals will have an incentive to seek a “free ride” by continuing to pollute while others cut back- hoping that others’ cutbacks will suffice to avoid catastrophe. Left uncurtailed, free-riding will undermine collective action.

 

Late in 2015 in Paris, the world will see the next round of global climate talks. We can each take tangible steps to make a difference. Raise awareness. Cut back on red meat consumption. Switch to LED bulbs. Adjust our modes of transport. Work for alternative energy in local communities. Lobby politicians. And yet top-level summits and individual actions are unlikely to succeed on their own.  We need a shift in consciousness to support multilevel cooperation in the push to cut carbon emissions. What ethical foundation might promote such collaboration?

 

One possibility is the Golden Rule: to want for others what you want for yourself.  Both sacred and secular, shared by many religious and humanist traditions, the Golden Rule can support diverse covenants- agreements on the obligation to work together to tackle shared problems, fostering trust and reciprocity, contributing to a collection of globally consequential interventions from many places. This may appear idealistic- and yet, in many cases where a tragedy of the commons was predicted, communities figured out mechanisms and rules to govern their behavior and sustain their shared commons resource. Can we, in differing steps and scales, do this for our global climate commons?

 

To the extent that the Golden Rule helps bridge divisions to build community and address difficult collective challenges, it is more urgent to affirm now than ever. That way we might be able to go Interstellar not from desperation, but choice

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.