Humanity in general and our civilization in particular face monumental challenges, and it is far from clear that they will be successfully overcome.
Climate change, aside from the threat of nuclear war, appears to be the greatest threat to the survival of humanity, or large portions of it. Europe is on fire, with the hottest temperatures on record in some countries such as England. As global warming increases, the situation is likely to get much worse.
Large swaths of the Middle East and South Asia may become virtually uninhabitable with maximum temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Enormous refugee flows would be likely to result.
Human beings are equipped with a cognitive apparatus—the human brain and psyche—which is housed in a body of flesh and blood, and is part of an organism with an incredibly powerful instinct for survival.
One aspect of that cognitive apparatus is that it systematically undervalues the probability of future adverse events. Perhaps that is necessary in order to avoid becoming paralyzed by fear, or is simply an adaptive mechanism that ensures you remain focused on present, immediate threats, like a tiger charging at you out of the jungle.
Whatever the mechanism, humans are not good at accurately assessing future threats and responding to them.
Even the present goal of limiting global temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which will not avoid some of the worst effects of climate change, as we are witnessing right now, seems to many too ambitious as our cumulative failures to take preventive actions produce their effects.
We should not pass too quickly over the threat to humanity posed by the risk of nuclear war. For the first time in the nuclear age we have recently seen a nuclear weapons state openly and repeatedly threaten to use a nuclear weapon. A taboo of enormous importance has been broken and its violation openly flouted.
That taboo has fallen with another, the taboo against trying to overthrow the United Nations Charter and international law. The cornerstone of the Charter is the prohibition against the threat or use of force against the territorial untegrity or political independence of any state.
Russia, by invading Ukraine has undertaken a frontal assault on the very principles and values upon which our contemporary civilization is based.
The principles are embodied in law, both domestic and international. Both domestic and international law give expression to our deepest values—the inviolable sanctity of the human person, and all the human rights and protections of international humanitarian law that derive from the sanctity of the human person.
These values have not always been shared throughout history, as memories of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and numerous Greek and Roman rulers readily attest.
The achievement of respect for these values has been the result of the long march of Western civilization over the last thousand years, and particularly through the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the First and Second World Wars.
The United Nations Charter was adopted in 1945 as the response of the civilized nations of the world, victorious in World War II, to the barbarism of the Germans and the Japanese.
The Preamble of the Charter is quite eloquent:
United Nations Charter:
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco…have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.
There are three challenges which humanity now faces, in immediate and palpable form.
(1) Moderation of the effects of global warming.
(2) Avoidance of thermonuclear war.
(3) Maintenance of the United Nations Charter and international law, including the prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers.
Global warming poses a threat to the very survival of humanity on this planet, though the human cognitive apparatus is poorly suited to correctly value this threat and take corrective action.
The United Nations, nonetheless, has provided the framework within which scientists from every country have, working together, developed a consensus about the factual basis of the threat.
The United Nations has also provided the framework in which the nations of the world were able to reach agreement, in the 2015 Paris Agreement (Paris Climate Accords), on goals and actions to be undertaken to moderate the effects of climate change on humanity and biological systems on Earth. The United Nations also provides the framework within which these efforts continue.
With respect to the second threat to the existence of humanity, the risk of thermonuclear war, the United Nations has also provided the institutional and legal framework within which all efforts at nuclear arms control have taken place.
The 1968 U.N. Convention on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), together with the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco in Latin America and the Caribbean, have greatly limited the proliferation of nuclear weapons over the last 55 years.
Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a point which the U.S. would do well to emphasize in its efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear efforts.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would not be possible without the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a specialized agency of the United Nations whose work is critical to the functioning of all nuclear arms control agreements.
All of the major arms control treaties with the Soviet Union, and the current START Treaty with Russia (limiting the number of nuclear weapons), have been concluded within the framework of the United Nations Charter and owe their obligatory effect to international law.
Notwithstanding these achievements, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has constituted an assault on the framework of the United Nations Charter and international law upon which all of these agreements depend, as well as agreements which might be concluded in the future.
As new weapons and threats emerge, one cannot imagine the conclusion of agreements, outside of the framework of the United Nations Charter and international law, to limit their spread and use.
Finally, without the prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers, which is the cornerstone of the U.N. Charter, it is difficult to see how the risks of thermonuclear war can be controlled, or how the entire structure of the U.N. Charter and international law can be maintained.
Without the United Nations and the international legal order based on its Charter, it is not possible to conceive of how the nations of the world could work together to moderate the effects of global warming.
As the above analysis makes clear, a great deal depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
Indeed, one could say that everything depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
The Trenchant Observer
Only force can stop Putin
“Ukraine War, April 5, 2022 (II): Force must be used to stop Putin,” The Trenchant Observer, April 5, 2022.
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