Three years ago, on 7 July 2017, something quite remarkable happened. After decades of trying to get the nuclear powers to fulfil their commitments under the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a bold group of countries including Costa Rica, New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland and South Africa, with the backing of a massive civil society campaign, decided to bypass the obstruction of the nuclear powers and create a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
It was the result of a global mobilisation under the umbrella of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of more than 500 partner organisations in over 100 countries, including Scientists for Global Responsibility in the UK. The approach of ICAN, which has an international steering group and a small staff in Geneva, was to use the new treaty to ‘stigmatise, prohibit and finally eliminate’ nuclear weapons. Timmon Wallis, from NucleanBan.us, who was involved in the treaty negotiations, described the joy he felt at for once being the one inside the UN building negotiating a treaty, while US and other big powers were outside protesting against it.
The process of securing the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shows what can be achieved from below.
In October 2016, 48 years after the conclusion of the original NPT, the First Committee of the United Nations overwhelmingly passed a resolution to begin negotiations towards a Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which they concluded in less than a year. The final text of the Treaty was officially adopted at the UN with 122 states in favour, one against, and one abstention. Its adoption, also known as the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, was much feted by peace activists and civil society organisations who, as ICAN, were collectively awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace prize for their efforts.
The treaty finally gives these weapons of mass destruction a similar legal status to biological and chemical weapons. It prohibits signatories from preparation of nuclear weapons, actual use and assisting other states or non-state groups in such actions. Not only is this story captivating for peace advocates, it is providing inspiration for people concerned about the climate emergency.
A growing number of people, politicians and leaders like former president of Ireland Mary Robinson are lending their support to the idea of a new treaty to fairly leave large swathes of remaining fossil fuels in the ground. The idea that the threat of climate breakdown is equal in its devastation to nuclear war is backed by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (whose minister of state, Baroness Anelay drew explicit parallels), its former chief scientific officer Sir David King and the World Economic Forum, among others.
Comparisons have already been drawn between much-needed climate action and the NPT, with its three pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use. But like the Paris Climate Agreement, the NPT has not been enough, leading activists to push for the TPNW. The process of securing the TPNW shows what can be achieved from below. The treaty is currently 12 ratifications short of entering into force as international law — 38 countries out a necessary 50 have so far ratified it — and even many NATO members are expected to come on board sooner or later. We could learn from this experience and now do the same for climate.
Peter Newell is Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the political economy of low carbon energy transitions and global climate change politics. He is currently an ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow and is on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace UK and Carbon Market Watch in Brussels. His books include Climate for Change, Governing Climate Change, Climate Capitalism and The Politics of Green Transformations.
Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk