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Climate Change: Moving Towards a Universal Ethical Framework
Building on the recommendations of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), the 35th General Conference, in October 2009, requested the Director-General to report on the desirability of preparing a draft declaration of ethical principles in relation to climate change. COMEST is leading the process of analysis and wide-ranging consultation that will feed into the report, which will be submitted to the Executive Board in October 2010. The outcome could be a universal declaration, adopted by the 36th General Conference in October 2011.
In their report on The Ethical Implications of Global Climate Change [PDF, 116 KB], the 18 independent experts of COMEST argued that there is an urgent need to establish universal ethical principles that can guide responses to the challenges of climate change at global, regional, national and local levels.
  • We need to understand climate change as a constellation of extremely complex phenomena in order to lay out coherent and credible scenarios for its possible development. This calls for a concerted scientific effort, focusing on the most urgent needs, in recognition of the universal right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” (article 27.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
  • We need also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of fair burden sharing that does not impede legitimate expectations of development.
  • We need, finally, to soften the impact of climate change to enable States and populations to adapt without damaging their vital interests.
In other words, at every level of action – scientific knowledge, mitigation, adaptation – the key, inherently ethical issue is responsibility.

Many of the key principles required by an ethical approach to climate change are already enshrined or referenced in international conventions and declarations. To quote the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” (article 3.1).

Other important and well-established principles include:
  • the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits;
  • the precautionary principle;
  • the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities;
  • the principle of sustainability;
  • the principle of integrity as applied to ecosystems; and
  • the principle of safeguarding and promoting the interests of future generations.
There is therefore an implicit basis for international consensus to provide international debate on climate change action with a stronger and clearer ethical underpinning.

However, key unresolved ethical questions remain. For example, with reference to the UNFCCC, how can the interests of present and future generations be balanced? What type of response to the challenges of climate change would be truly “equitable”? Which responsibilities are truly “common” and which are “differentiated”? Do those who have the “capacity” to act have a duty to do so, regardless of their historical contribution to greenhouse gas emissions? For the past 15 years, such issues have hampered the establishment of an agreed international framework for action that might rise to the challenge the planet faces.

In agreeing to act on the recommendation of COMEST, Member States have emphasized the importance of ethics for a comprehensive approach to climate change.

Related Links

Recommendations of the 6th Session of COMEST [PDF, 47 KB]

1 question for… His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco: “Finding long-term solutions in order to ensure a fair and sustainable development of our planet”, in SHSviews 25

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