In 2015, the UCC General Synod passed a resolution on Responsible Stewardship of the Outer Space Environment. Through a regular series of articles, the UCC maintains its commitment to addressing the serious threats posed by space debris.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, addressed the growing problem of space debris last October in remarks to the General Assembly’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee. He called on delegates “to take care of our outer space, which is universally recognized as a common heritage of humanity and, as such, destined for the universal common good.”
Archbishop Auza noted that “as space activities increase, outer space pollution has also increased at an alarming rate, defiling outer space with debris, chemical effluents, biological contamination and radioactive contamination.”
He told delegates that “outer space is fully a part of our comprehensive environment, and thus it deserves as much care as our environment here below.”
The environment, he continued, is a “gift entrusted to our responsible stewardship. Among the many considerations that flow from this fundamental principle are intergenerational solidarity and a focus not merely on rights but on responsibilities… Indeed, the concept of the common good extends to future generations, and outer space as a common heritage of mankind is a common good that we hand on to future generations.”
The Apostolic Nuncio exhorted the international community to take action. He said: “As States are exploiting outer space more and more, there is an urgent requirement for an international effort to combat the increasing problem of space pollution. The present international legal system has yet to respond adequately to this challenge. Various proposals are on the table to address this situation, including the drafting of new treaties and guidelines, and the establishment of an appropriate agency. The Holy See hopes that the development of an international normative system adequate to protect outer space and our Earth from further degradation will not be too long in coming, for the health of our planet and for the good of all humanity.”
In a similar vein, General Synod called on the UCC in 2015 to recognize that faithful stewardship of God’s creation compels us to expand our environmental perspective to include outer space, which is home to numerous activities essential to human flourishing. Noting that space debris and irresponsible conduct pose a serious threat to the long term sustainability of the space environment, General Synod expressed its “support for efforts by the United States and other nations to negotiate international agreements that encourage responsible behavior in space.”
James Clay Moltz, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, points to several potential avenues for cooperation among spacefaring nations that reflect their shared interests. These include better space traffic management to reduce the risk of collision, debris mitigation to reduce congestion in heavily used orbits, and reducing the risk of military conflict.
Unfortunately, recent diplomatic efforts to improve orbital safety and enhance environmental sustainability - including a moratorium on anti-satellite weapons testing, which creates vast quantities of debris - have failed to gain traction. As Moltz says, international collaboration is necessary to address shared risks but consensus and action are blocked by the fragmentation of power among self-serving countries. He believes the engagement of civil sector institutions will be crucial if we hope to ensure the sustainable use and development of outer space.
This is why the Apostolic Nuncio’s call to action is so welcome. A global religious environmental movement is using its moral influence to address global warming. If it were also to bring its attention to bear on the space debris issue – as the UCC and Vatican are beginning to do – the movement might help to steer our spacefaring civilization onto a new trajectory, one that substitutes the coordinates of internationalism and cooperation for those of unilateralism and military competition. Then, perhaps, the international community could avert the tragedy of the commons scenario developing in space.
Rev. Robert Bachelder is Minister and President of the Worcester Area Mission Society, UCC in Massachusetts and author of the General Synod resolution on responsible stewardship of the outer space environment.