Influencing United Nations Space Governance

Outer Space and Our Common Agenda

Public and private interest in spacefaring is rising, and emerging opportunities to work on space governance could be incredibly impactful in the long run future (see problem profile). Effective space governance will require significant institutional reform to:

  • Account for emerging and future technological developments
  • Involve all relevant actors
  • Resolve competing interests
  • Maintain the flexibility to respond to future risks and developments 

Space governance should be addressed at multiple levels of government, but the role of space as a “global commons” makes international governance particularly important. The “Our Common Agenda” (OCA) report, issued by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in September 2021, calls for a Summit of the Future to take place in September 2023. One of the high-level tracks for discussion at the Summit is the “Outer Space Dialogue”. Furthermore, OCA shows profound interest in longtermism—17 of its 69 proposals relate directly to longtermism, according to the Simon Institute. It outlines plans for new institutions to protect future generations and minimize global catastrophic risks, providing a great opportunity for longtermist policy proposals. Space governance may be influenced outside the context of the Summit, including at meetings of the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS). However, the Summit presents a great opportunity to influence longterm space governance when the UN is specifically interested in longtermist proposals.

Improving Multilateralism

Effective governance of both outer space and existential risks involve institutional structures which facilitate foresight and maintain the flexibility to respond to emerging issues. The term “adaptive governance” is often used to describe these institutional models, and there are several criteria that an institution should meet to be sufficiently adaptive. 

The OCA report has an emphasis on making multilateralism more “networked, inclusive and effective”. All three of these elements are inherent to adaptive governance structures. Furthermore, they all describe shortcomings with current space governance institutions. The “networked, inclusive and effective” model of multilateralism can help identify the areas where space governance can be improved.

Networked Multilateralism

Networked multilateralism involves going “beyond traditional silos” to coordinate actions, including greater involvement of non-governmental stakeholders such as academia and the private sector. It means having common goals so that stakeholders’ actions are coordinated at all levels, including national regulations or private sector activities. Currently, outer space rules and norms setting is widely distributed among UN agencies, including the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), the Conference on Disarmament, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This creates a confusing web of rules and jurisdictions without strong coordination. UN resolutions and institutions also demonstrate limited alignment with national legislation, private sector visions, and bilateral efforts outside the UN like the Artemis Accords. Space activities will continue to be conducted by a wide range of state agencies, scientific organizations, and private companies, all of whom will have separate structures for organization and industry collaboration. Embracing a more networked approach for space governance through common goals and inclusion of all stakeholders would allow for better coordination, reducing risks and misbehavior.  Healthy networked multilateralism depends on broad inclusivity and balanced power dynamics, and this should be reflected by institutional designs.

Inclusive Multilateralism

Inclusive multilateralism means including "a diverse range of voices" in decision-making. This means involving the private sector, researchers, and proper representation of the international community. Current international rules provide little guidance for private actors in space. Under the Outer Space Treaty, nations are responsible for authorizing and supervising private actors in space registered within their jurisdiction, and states are responsible for any damages that arise from private actors. The result is a system where private actors can relocate to jurisdictions with the most favorable conditions and operate with low responsibility. Shared responsibility for private sector actors could play a role in preventing this “race to the bottom”. OCA’s vision of “Arrangements where the private sector commits to responsible innovation and to harnessing technology fairly” is extremely applicable and urgent for space governance. Space governance also involves a significant overrepresentation of voices from the developed world. Ensuring the voices of the Global South are heard is necessary to properly treat space as a “global commons”, ensure the regions where most members of future generations will be born are taken into account, and increase international support for proposals. 

Effective Multilateralism

Effective multilateralism involves being "ready to act or adapt in the face of present and new risks". Technological developments happen quickly in the space domain, and regulations have historically been unable to keep up. Current UN resolutions provide vague rules for permanent settlement and the use of space resources. The result is that national legislation and bilateral agreements have taken the lead in shaping the global discussion around these topics. Multilateral institutions should be able to quickly set rules and norms in light of new developments to avoid providing confusing instructions to space actors and prevent the loss of UN legitimacy over outer space affairs.

Past Shortcomings

Our Common Agenda mentions several shortcomings of UN resolutions on outer space. The main points are that past resolutions were created "in an era of exclusively Statebased activity" when recent developments are more often "driven by actors in the private sector", and past resolutions do not create proper guidance for three key areas necessary for sustainable space exploration: (1) "managing traffic in outer space", (2) "the permanent settlement of celestial bodies", and (3) "responsibilities for resource management". OCA also discusses space in the context of future generations, noting, "Increasing congestion and competition in outer space could imperil access and use by succeeding generations."

Better institutions and rules for networked, inclusive multilateralism in outer space can promote space development that is quickly responsive to new developments and aligned with the interests of future generations. Research and concrete proposals for this purpose could be a very impactful area in the lead-up to the Summit.

Overview of Space Governance Issues and Where We Can Impact Them

In this section, I outline some areas within space governance which we can expect to be addressed in the near future. Although all of the following categories are important, some of them are more neglected and tractable than others, and I aim to determine which topics in space governance might merit more attention. Then, I discuss how OCA provides an opportunity to act on the tractable issues.

Space Debris Management: Important, Tractable, but Low Neglectedness

Our Common Agenda makes a direct mention of the need for better space debris management. It notes that "each collision will create further debris in a chain reaction potentially rendering space unusable for generations", referring to the runaway Kessler Syndrome. Metaculus predicts a concerningly high chance of Kessler Syndrome by 2050 (17 percent at the time of this writing). If Kessler Syndrome occurs, there will be several future generations who would not have access to outer space. Although technical means to clean up space debris would likely render space usable again soon thereafter, the cost of limited space usage for several generations would be catastrophic. Increasing global reliance on space for civil purposes means cleaning up space debris would be beneficial for all actors, so space debris management is tractable. However, it is not as neglected in space policy discussions. Standards for space debris mitigation have been developed and are continuously evolving at both the national and international levels, and marginal resources might not need to be dedicated to space debris management. However, I may update this belief if there are new, tractable proposals that would make a significant impact in removing space debris or decreasing the rate of buildup.

Militarization: Important, but Low Tractability and Low Neglectedness

The militarization of space is another frequent topic of discussion. Outer space negotiations at the United Nations are often a back-and-forth argument with the West on one side, and China and Russia on the other. A Chinese-Russian treaty to ban space militarization was blocked by the United States multiple times, and an International Code of Conduct for space proposed by the EU was also rejected by the international community, partly for failing to engage enough stakeholders in the drafting process. Space militarization would increase the risk of great power conflict and increase global catastrophic risk on earth. However, these discussions are highly political and contested, and they are not particularly tractable nor neglected. This claim largely applies to influencing UN policy on space governance, and there may be a strong justification for trying to decrease the threat of space militarization through reshaping great power grand strategies, creating new technical means to reduce dual-use threats, or advancing bilateral discussion between great powers, particularly the U.S. and China. The most effective ways to decrease space militarization likely parallel the most effective strategies for reducing nuclear threats.

Space Settlement and Resource Use: High Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness

Space settlement and resource use are starting to be addressed at the national level in some countries. Four nations (United States, Luxembourg, Japan, and UAE) have passed legislation that allows private individuals to extract space resources. Some legal scholars argue that the use of space resources is not allowed under the Outer Space Treaty because the treaty claims "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means". Hence, the international debate over space resources and settlement has mostly been shaped by their legality as activities. Meanwhile, state space agencies and commercial organizations have progressed along roadmaps to space settlement and resource use. I do not have a legal background and claim no legal expertise. However, given current trends in national legislation and the Artemis Accords, which allow for the use of space resources and have been signed by eighteen nations as of this writing, I claim that the legal use of space resources, and permanent space settlements thereafter, is likely to become permissible within the international community, under certain rules and norms. Following this assumption, we should consider practical implementations for longterm space governance concerning space settlement and space resource use. We may be able to create principles and norms for these areas which are aligned with the interests of benefiting humanity and future generations. These topics are important, tractable, and heavily neglected.

Developing Solutions

Space traffic management lends itself well to clear regulations and policies, such as agreeing to not produce space debris and removing defunct satellites from orbit. Since there are no existing space settlements on celestial bodies or commercial space resource exploitation operations, it is more difficult to propose concrete regulations. As space settlements and resource use expand in time, the need for new regulations to adapt to a changing economy, new technologies, and environmental impact on celestial bodies will emerge. Many of the regulations needed for space governance will not even become clear in the next decades. Longterm space governance takes into account possible very longterm futures, including humanity as an interstellar species which can utilize advanced technologies such as nuclear fusion, terraforming, self-expanding industry, and other technologies within the laws of physics. We have deep uncertainty with respect to these longterm futures. 

I claim that an impactful area to make progress on space governance is creating governance structures for addressing future civil space activities. Civil space discussions are usually focused on "managing traffic in outer space". Further proposals for addressing the other two key areas mentioned in OCA, "the permanent settlement of celestial bodies" and "responsibilities for resource management", are less frequently discussed outside the context of their legality. Civil space use discussions also occur at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which meets regularly and has produced tangible outcomes. We should consider how we can create institutions, rules, and norms for outer space to ensure its “peaceful, secure, sustainable use”, including proper forecasting, monitoring, and quick responsiveness to new developments and risks. 

Ideas for Governance Structures and Other Proposals

Adaptive Governance

We have an opportunity to introduce adaptive governance frameworks at the UN for space governance. Adaptive governance frameworks are already being discussed and proposed within the EA community for reducing existential risk. Space governance is a practical application of adaptive governance models which we can implement in the context of the upcoming Summit. Space governance is often overlooked when considering adaptive governance because there are no current existential risks arising from the space domain, so it falls outside most discussions of preparedness, mitigation and adaptation. However, outer space nevertheless requires adaptive governance systems because of the high uncertainties for how it will develop and the speed at which technologies and developments emerge.

A key difference between space governance and existential risks is that space governance lacks a rapidly-emerging catastrophic event such as a ‘fast takeoff’ scenario for AGI, the quick spreading of a pandemic, nuclear war, or a large natural disaster related to climate change. Quick responsiveness is a core component of effective catastrophic risk governance to mitigate the effects of an emerging disaster. Responsiveness should not be discounted in space governance structures—it is still relevant in the context of regulating emerging technologies and activities over the span of several months or years. Adaptive governance models would increase the chance that we can set positive norms around new technologies and activities before their widespread proliferation creates a lock-in to negative norms.

Examples

Several recent sets of criteria have been proposed for developing adaptive institutions to address existential and global catastrophic risks, and most of them can be applied for effective space governance. Three examples are provided below, which relate specifically to catastrophic risk governance or space governance:

  • The Simon Institute for Longterm Governance proposes three ‘avenues for improving long-term institutional fit’: a better representation of future generations; including prevention, mitigation, recovery, and learning in agendas; and shifting narratives around ‘transgenerational global public goods’ and institutional adaptivity.
  • Fisher and Sandberg (2022) propose five conditions for global catastrophic risk governance, which can also be applied to space governance: recognition of deep uncertainty, flexibility and speed in responding, active monitoring and action, cooperation and coordination across levels and stakeholders, and resilience and preparedness for unexpected changes.  
  • Migaud, Greer, and Bullock (2021) outline five criteria for applying adaptive governance to outer space: collecting information about the space environment and resources, accounting for the value of outer space to humanity, considering human interactions with the space environment, promoting dialogue between resource users, and developing “complex, redundant, and layered institutions.” 

Some trends emerge among the approaches to adaptive governance. In particular, they are all rooted in the ability to “monitor and adapt” to circumstances (Stanton and Roelich, 2021). Below, I outline some initial proposals in the spirit of this framework.

Initial Proposals

 Proper assessments of potential risks should be embedded in our norms and decision-making for space governance. We can foresee the development of many technologies, promoting differential technology development to reduce the risks posed to future generations. For example, terraforming projects to make atmospheric conditions on celestial bodies more suitable for human life could have unexpected outcomes that permanently close off planets as homes for humanity. The use of robotics and artificial intelligence will be necessary since humans are less capable of industry in the intense conditions, and self-expanding industry would limit the number of payloads we need to launch out of earth’s gravity well when creating expansive developments. However, there can be serious negative implications to these applications without proper foresight. These projects may still be decades away, but it is plausible that the international institutions and norms we set now will still be relevant when they are seriously considered. 

Our Common Agenda also mentions the creation of many instruments which explicitly protect future generations. These include a Futures Lab, Special Envoy for Future Generations, Repurposing the Trusteeship Council, and a Declaration on Future Generations (see previous post for more about OCA and longtermism). We can ensure outer space is an integral part of the mandate of these new instruments. For example, outer space can be a key focus of the impact report expected every five years from the Futures Lab. The safeguarding of outer space can also be implemented within the Declaration. We should embed the need for longterm space governance where we can within these new mandates. 

Developing concrete proposals is essential to increase the chance these ideas are seriously considered and maximize the probability that all of our criteria for their structure are met. For example, one may propose a committee of experts to prepare a forecasting report on upcoming challenges in outer space every ten years, taking into account emerging technologies, planned space activities, and potential conflicts of interest. Better monitoring of celestial bodies and periodic impact assessments of anthropogenic activities may also help us react to potentially harmful space activities and forecast future changes. 

The proposals above are a beginning to brainstorming the most effective long-term space governance proposals we can implement at the UN level. More research should be done on the details of governance structures and other rules and norms which would have the greatest impact on ensuring the positive development of outer space.

Framing the Message: Relating Key Ideas

We can increase the chance that our proposals are more closely integrated into the outputs from the Summit by matching the priorities of the UN and the language it uses. Fortunately, most proposals for longterm space governance are aligned with the sentiments of OCA and prior UN resolutions on outer space. 

Our Common Agenda has an emphasis on future generations, and we can expect future generations to be a key consideration in UN discussions, including those surrounding outer space. Serious consideration would then be given to proposals that safeguard access and use of space for future generations. Proposals should also align with the values which the United Nations considers in outer space, namely its “peaceful, secure and sustainable” use. The “permanent settlement of celestial bodies” and “responsibilities for resource management” are explicitly mentioned in OCA, making these high-priority areas for proposals. 

We can directly relate resource management to the sustainable use of space for future generations. Similarly, we can also propose rules and norms for permanent settlement under the umbrella of the secure use of space by future generations. Lucas-Rhimbassen (2022) forecasts some challenges we may face with increased commercial involvement in space, including the conflict between corporate and state actors over norm-setting, the potential for monopolies in sensitive areas such as oxygen supply, and the risk of having only a few stakeholders making decisions about terraforming, genetic engineering, and other areas of ethical concern. These issues naturally relate to secure and sustainable use of space for future generations, and they are very concerning. Mandating that future generations’ interests are taken into account when conducting space activities would limit potentially catastrophic megaprojects or overexploitation of critical resources like oxygen.

Promoting the interests of future generations in space also follows from prior resolutions on space governance, specifically the Outer Space Treaty. Article IX establishes the requirement to avoid the “harmful contamination” of celestial bodies and “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter”. Similar sentiments may be used to establish norms of limiting terraforming and genetic engineering projects in outer space which may cause widespread harm to humans, earth, or celestial bodies. Actors also have the right to access and use outer space without “harmful interference” from others. Strict scrutiny may be applied to proposals for terraforming, self-expanding industry, or other megaprojects which may pose catastrophic risks to other users of celestial bodies.

How Much Should We Focus on Space Governance

Some more attention should be paid to space governance than current levels, particularly in the context of OCA. However, there are other agenda items in response to OCA that merit more attention. Other high-level tracks at the Summit will include the "Emergency Response Platform for Complex Crises" and the "Declaration on Future Generations". New instruments created by these dialogues can address a more broad array of global catastrophic risks, existential risks, and concerns for future generations than the Outer Space Dialogue. 

We should also consider that not all resources dedicated to space governance should be focused on the UN level. Influencing private actors, bilateral agreements, and national governments may be more tractable in many cases. However, inclusivity and coordination throughout the international community are important in light of the view of space as a “global commons”, rendering UN work particularly relevant.

In conclusion, for EAs with a background in outer space or those already working with the United Nations, there may be an opportunity to influence the implementation of some impactful space governance proposals that we should not overlook.

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