The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Chalecki, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nebraska Omaha, a Research Fellow in the Environmental Change & Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a Research Chair with Fulbright Canada.
This year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Baruch Plan. Almost no one knows this, or if they do, they probably don’t remember who Bernard Baruch was, or what his eponymous plan was for. But the Baruch Plan of 1946 was our first and last real attempt at world governance of nuclear weapons. Three-quarters of a century later, the ill-fated effort carries important lessons for addressing the crisis of climate change.
The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were excited about the post-war industrial prospects of atomic technology, which they saw as manifold. But they also had serious misgivings about its continued development as a weapon, misgivings which they repeatedly brought to the U.S. government’s attention. So they proposed a new governance regime with the ambitious goal of ending all wars. On June 4, 1946, the financier and statesman Bernard Baruch, serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC), proposed this scheme to the world.
The Baruch Plan, derived from the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, laid out three characteristics of atomic weapons that made governing this technology unlike any previous arms control challenge. First, the technology was more powerful than any other weapon in existence. It only took one bomb to wipe out a city and two to force the end of a six-year world war. Second, there were no defenses or countermeasures against atomic weapons. Anti-aircraft systems of the time were unlikely to bring down a solo plane, and the destructive radius of an atomic bomb meant that civilians would have no time to flee an attack. Third, there was no longer any secrecy surrounding the bomb, at least among major powers. American, British, Canadian, and French scientists had worked on various facets of atomic technology during the war, and by 1945, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union all had their own experiments underway.
The Baruch Plan proposed that all atomic weapons be placed under the control of the United Nations, which would oversee all peacetime research into the field the physicists called nucleonics. In addition, participating countries would be subject to UN inspections to make sure they were not violating the plan by making their own atomic weapons secretly. In presenting this international governance arrangement to the UNAEC, Baruch said, “The peoples…are not afraid of an internationalism that protects; they are unwilling to be fobbed off by mouthings about narrow sovereignty, which is today’s phrase for yesterday’s isolation.” Unfortunately, Baruch’s warning went unheeded. The United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on vital matters of inspections and control, and the plan was not adopted. Narrow sovereignty carried the day.
Why is an unsuccessful arms control agreement relevant seventy-five years later? Because once again we need to learn this same lesson: new planet-changing technology is available to help humanity combat an existential security threat—that of anthropogenic climate change. New technologies are becoming available that will permit commons-based geoengineering (CBG), or the deliberate manipulation of Earth’s climate in the global commons, including through stratospheric aerosol injection, ocean iron fertilization, and marine-based cloud brightening. However, like atomic fission, this technology is not to be jumped at without caution. It could be used to tweak the climate to the advantage of a country or region or disadvantage a rival, and in doing so, force the nations of the world to reconsider the very concepts of borders and sovereignty.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock currently stands at one hundred seconds before midnight, due to a combination of the lingering nuclear threat and our ongoing recalcitrance to take any meaningful action to slow climate change. As the effects of global warming become more pronounced, geoengineering technologies will start to look more attractive as a policy option for states that cannot or will not commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or which find themselves victims of the unwillingness of others to do so. Some countries may try to use geoengineering to gain temporary relief from climate-related security threats, or to gain a longer-term strategic advantage over others. Intriguingly, CBG shares the same three characteristics that made atomic weapons such a unique threat in 1946, and the prospect of their international governance so compelling. First, it is a powerful technology, capable of shifting regional or possibly global weather patterns. Second, short of sabotaging equipment, there are no countermeasures and no defense against CBG. Third, there is no possibility of keeping this technology secret, since scientists from all over the world have collaborated on different methods of climate engineering.
While the original Baruch Plan dealt specifically with atomic weapons, several features of that proposed regime should carry over to any authoritative international geoengineering agency. First, the agency should have the power to inspect and license all technology, conduct or oversee deployments, and lead research and development efforts cooperatively with states, universities, and private companies. This would ensure that the agency serves as a clearinghouse for major experiments, provides for orderly experimentation at critical locations, and disallows rogue geoengineers. Second, the agency should have the sole right to conduct or license research in the field of CBG. The designs, equipment, and patents used in scientific experiments could remain private property, but the results and ongoing data monitoring must be publicly available at all times so as to provide international transparency and maintain public confidence that use of CBG is the result of sanctioned experiments only. Third, the agency should use its scientific expertise to reassess which experiments are working and which are not. It is critically important to the entire CBG endeavor that the relevant technologies be used for greater good than harm; only the international agency should make this determination. This ensures that the interests of narrow sovereignty will not cause nations to override the general good in favor of whatever temporary advantage CBG might give them.
Just as nuclear fission can produce both weapons and energy, so too can geoengineering provide benefits if applied judiciously. But as the climate crisis becomes more acute and its effects more powerful, the window for judicious thinking will begin to close. Confronted with the reality of a warming planet, the temptation for states to use climate engineering as just another sovereign tool of national security will be overwhelming. As technology historian Jill Lepore points out, the links between the military and earth scientists predate geoengineering, and even public-spirited science yields to the demands of the national security state. In order to avoid a climate change arms race and sidestep the sovereignty trap, we need a new governance structure for planet-altering climate manipulation technologies. We need a new Baruch Plan.