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.