Guest Post – Planetary Defense and International Law: Balancing Risks

I’m very pleased to host a guest post from an old friend of mine, and A-list international law academic, James Green.  James is Professor of Public International Law at Reading University. He has written widely on international use of force law, WMD proliferation law, and he most recently wrote an acclaimed book on the persistent objector principle.

In this post, James considers what would happen if Bruce Willis movies predicted the future.  I’ll leave it to James to explain 🙂

But seriously, this is in fact a very interesting legal area due to the various treaty and customary law principles it implicates. Take it away, James . . .

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Planetary Defense and International Law: Balancing Risks

By: Dr. James A. Green

Professor of Public International Law, University of Reading (UK)

 

Major asteroid impact is a low-probability, but high-consequence risk.  Large ‘Near-Earth Objects’ (NEOs) don’t hit Earth often, but there have been at least 5 extinction-events in the history of our planet because of such impacts (not least, the end of the dinosaurs). Of course, low probability risks are easily dismissed, however high the consequences of them manifesting might be, and, until recently, the countries of the world largely viewed the threat posed by NEOs as something best left to Hollywood films like Armageddon or Deep Impact.  Limited funding, a lack of coordinated strategies and infrastructure, and a pervading absence of political will all meant that – had a large collision-course asteroid appeared 20 (or even 5) years ago – our chances of responding to it in time might have been pretty slim.

But that’s all changed, following the impact (in more ways than one) of the meteoroid that hit Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013, which injured over a thousand people. Suddenly, the NEO threat became ‘real’, and major players – the US, Russia and the EU – all started pumping money into NEO preparedness, and developing formal strategies for response (see, for example, the production of the US’s first ever National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy in December 2016).  At the UN, we’ve witnessed the recent creation of an embryonic international institutional infrastructure, with new inter-state bodies to detect (IAWN) and respond (SMPAG) to asteroids.  The risk of asteroid cataclysm hasn’t changed – it’s still extremely unlikely any time soon, but very likely at some point in the next 100,000 years (who knows when?) – but what has changed is that humanity now has the global political will and infrastructure to begin to be in a position to respond, if needed.

Alongside this, there is an increasingly strong, if not unanimous, scientific view that the use of nuclear weapons would in many cases be our best hope of responding to a collision-course NEO.  NASA has quantified the use of nuclear weapons as being between 10-100 times more effective than any non-nuclear alternative.  In line with this view, the newfound (post-Chelyabinsk) governmental and inter-governmental focus on NEO preparedness has particularly engaged in developing what we might term the ‘nuclear option’.  For example, even before the end of 2013, the US and Russia had mooted working on a nuclear planetary defense initiative together.  That now seems to be on hold given current tensions between the two states (Crimea, Trump’s election, Salisbury, you name it), but the very fact that these nations – given their shared nuclear history – seriously considered the possibility of joint nuclear action against asteroids speaks volumes.

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