Nuclear Disarmament’s Lessons for Climate Change.

If we can ban nukes, we can ban carbon emissions. Here’s how.

A Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons poster from the 1980s.
A Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons poster from the 1980s. Wellcome Library, London

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons were the main existential threat to the planet. But they were also considered vital to powerful nations. With no chance of getting those players to give them up, possession and use of the weapons was simply regulated at the margins. But thanks to the concerted work of a coalition of activists, nuclear weapons were banned outright in a 2017 treaty that has been signed by 70 countries and ratified by 23.

Although the treaty is not yet in force, if it ever becomes international law, it will represent a major step forward toward nuclear disarmament. And even states that have not signed the nuclear ban treaty can already feel its stigmatizing effects: British banks and U.S. cities are divesting from the nuclear weapons industry, and nuclear powers are increasingly forced to defend their nuclear stance against social and ethical demands for disarmament.

If nations can come together to ban something as precious to great powers as nuclear weapons, why can’t they at least try to do the same for carbon emissions? Unlike a nuclear war, which represents a terrible but highly unlikely future threat, carbon-induced climate change is a human catastrophe already in motion.

A 2012 report of experts published by the aid organization DARA International calculated that 400,000 people die every year as a direct result of carbon-induced climate change. According to the journalist David Wallace-Wells, writing in New York magazine, scientists project that catastrophic heat waves, food shortages, and warming-induced plagues will hit the earth in only a few decades. The latest—and inherently conservative—report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of extreme weather and the displacement of millions of people.

Like nuclear disarmament, the key problem in global climate governance is not our scientific understanding of the problem. Rather, it is creating the political will to solve it. Political incentives work against action. The states most responsible for the problem are the least likely to feel its immediate effects and are therefore the least willing to make drastic changes.

Meanwhile, because the rest of the global community is so desperate to get the veto players on board, they have reduced climate governance efforts to the lowest common denominator. This is why the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreement didn’t ban the use of carbon or require switching to carbon-free energy sources (like nuclear power). Rather, such treaties have focused on incremental changes. Yet even if all states met their commitments, it would be too little, too late.

What has a chance of working is to shake the carbon villains out of their cost-benefit thinking by adopting a moral shaming approach. Climate change is an existential threat to vulnerable populations—and, eventually, we will all be vulnerable. Shaming people into sacrificing for the common good is what wins wars, fuels wartime economies, and generally helps populations accept and enforce austerity measures in times of conflict. The same approach will help the global community address climate change, but only if laggard nations are first shamed into cooperating with those who are already feeling the heat.

In this, climate change activists could take a page from nuclear disarmament activists’ playbook. They should stop treating climate change as an economic problem that can be solved through carbon trading, or an environmental issue that requires collective action by the worst offenders on behalf of the planet. Instead, eliminating carbon emissions must be seen as a moral and humanitarian imperative requiring decisive action regardless of whether the United States and China agree. To do so, they will need to build a strong set of global norms prohibiting carbon emissions.

This approach has worked well in solving other global problems, especially in the area of weapons regulation, where the worst offenders are also least interested in change. Research shows that to replace patchwork global governance approaches with solid global prohibition norms, activists must ask states to adopt ambitious goals rather than move in incremental steps. To avoid incrementalism, the activists marginalize the veto players by creating invite-only forums for like-minded powers to solve jointly understood problems. To encourage cooperation among the non-like-minded, they valorize norm leaders and shame (rather than appease) norm laggards. Perhaps most importantly, they articulate issues through a humanitarian and moral lens. This shift in rhetoric has the power to change the entire conversation around an issue—and it can lead to rapid policy innovation.

Consider the case of nuclear weapons. Like climate change, nuclear weapons represent an existential security threat to nations, human beings, and the planet. And like with climate change, in the nuclear arena, a majority coalition of weak states, middle powers, and nonstate actors favored strong action, while a few powerful veto players hobbled progress. The veto players pushed for incremental reforms: better safeguards, gradual reduction of nuclear stockpiles, and bans on testing and technology transfer but not on the weapons themselves.

After decades working unsuccessfully through the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference forum, ban advocates finally changed strategies in 2006. They began to talk about nuclear weapons not as a threat to state security but as a global humanitarian issue. They began calling on states to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty and ban the weapons altogether. They started organizing their own, separate conferences, inviting states to sign the “Humanitarian Pledge.” Ultimately, 122 nations did so, and the document has already started to influence how nuclear nations justify their arsenals. As political scientists know, this is the first step in global normative and political change.

The same approach can help end carbon dependency as well, but it requires upending how global climate governance is conducted. Currently, treaty negotiations include all countries and take place through a consensus-based U.N. forum. Instead, activists should create a global network, identify a state willing to take the lead (perhaps Sweden), and host a separate conference of like-minded nations. Only nations willing to commit to a Humanitarian Pledge for the environment should be allowed to attend the conference, which would focus on codifying a global understanding of the humanitarian and moral costs of carbon-induced climate change, an agreement that net zero carbon dioxide emissions has to be the end goal, and a consensus around the steps signatories will take to get there.

The event should be publicized and celebrated. Alongside experts, victims of climate change—including teenage activists standing in for future generations—should be given space on the floor. By excluding the veto players, and by focusing attention on the human costs of climate change, activists will change the discussion and establish a special club of those willing to literally save the human race. Instead of having leverage, China, the United States, and other laggards will have to earn their right to participate.

Most fundamentally, states at a Zero Carbon conference would have to decide what a Zero Carbon world looks like, but to give one option, switching to nuclear power has already been shown to be a cheap, simple, low-risk, and feasible way to meet Zero Carbon goals quickly in countries where other renewable resources are less than fully reliable. Unlike nuclear weapons, which are scary and dangerous, carbon-free nuclear power is reliable and safe, particularly compared to fossil fuels like coal, whose extraction and use is associated with many health problems. Whatever stakeholders agree to, the goal must be swift and decisive action as a moral imperative.

Even if the biggest polluters refuse to sign, a stronger treaty can still make a difference. Research from the disarmament sector shows that strong global norms can lead to policy change even among powerful states that were once veto players. To be sure, it is too soon to know whether the nuclear ban treaty will have that effect, but the treaty banning the use of land mines did. Even though the United States has not signed it, U.S. leaders have poured more resources than any other country into demining, and they have all but eliminated the weapon’s use. The United Kingdom, originally a staunch opponent of a cluster munitions ban, became one of the biggest champions of the cluster munitions ban treaty in the face of shaming from nongovernmental organizations. It is largely in compliance with the treaty.

The United States and United Kingdom would not have changed their behavior in the absence of norm-building and moral arguments by NGOs and smaller states. If actors willing to address climate change commit to and adopt Zero Carbon policies for moral and humanitarian reasons, even laggard governments may eventually be shamed into following suit.

If instead nations continue to fiddle around with baby steps, watered-down standards, and endless talk while the planet burns, very soon it won’t matter.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

Ronald Mitchell is a professor of political science at the University of Oregon.