Declaration on Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change

Questions and Answers

Question 1: What will the Declaration on Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change be about?

World leaders have called climate change the biggest challenge of the 21st century. The declaration will make the case for States, communities and individuals to take action to deal with the twin challenges of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

It will be a non-binding declaration to promote the moral basis for tackling the threat posed by climate change to people and the planet. The declaration will identify and clarify a set of ethical principles to underpin the moral case for the international community to take action to address climate change.

The potential principles in the declaration may include ethical principles which underpin the case for reducing the threat posed by climate change to our environment, economies and societies. Those principles might include but will not be limited to:

  • Safeguarding the interests of present and future generations
  • Polluters should pay the price of the damage they cause
  • Recognition of the interdependence of life on earth
  • The duty to share scientific knowledge.

UNESCO has asked 24 environmental experts from around the world to prepare a first draft of a preliminary text of a declaration at a meeting in Rabat, Morocco, from 20 to 24 September 2016. The meeting was hosted by the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco – host-country of COP-22 (Marrakech, 7-18 November 2016) – which confirms the commitment of Morocco to promoting effective climate change adaptation and mitigation, founded on a sound ethical basis.

The first draft of a preliminary text of a declaration will serve as a technical basis for consultations with the 195 Member States of UNESCO prior to their discussion of the adoption of a final declaration at its General Conference in November 2017.

Question 2: Why do we need a declaration of ethical principles in relation to climate change?

Climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue. If failure to act could have catastrophic implications, responses to climate change that are not thought through carefully, with ethical implications in mind, have the potential to devastate entire communities, create new paradigms of inequity and misdistribution, and render even more vulnerable those peoples who have already found themselves uprooted by other man-made political and ideological struggles.

Secular and religious organizations, including from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and other philosophies and faiths, have issued declarations making the moral, ethical, environmental, economic and social case for tackling global warming.

But this declaration would be the first purely ethical declaration adopted by the United Nations on this topic. As such, it may clarify a set of universal principles that could help us activate international solidarity, and coordinate action across cultures and societies.

Question 3: Does the declaration have any practical purpose?

Yes, UNESCO believes that agreeing universally on ethical principles in relation to climate change will underpin ambitious voluntary commitments by 195 countries, which adopted the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to combat the threat of global warming.

Some 195 countries reached this landmark agreement in Paris, which sets a collective goal of keeping global warming below 2C° compared to pre-industrial times and endeavoured to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C°. It is now required that all countries develop and submit plans for climate action and to update them every five years, though such plans are not legally binding. All countries in Paris committed to action on climate change by developing their own voluntary commitments, referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Crucially, the countries’ INDCs, are not legally binding.

Therefore, a declaration that clarifies the globally agreed ethical principles can support each state to scale its INDC accordingly in order to meet the need, in light of shared responsibilities.

A declaration could also be a powerful means to support and advance coordinated joint action, among not only States but also other stakeholders including civil society organisations, academics, and local communities for example. It is thus a means to mobilize and to sensitize people on universal principles and concerns that go beyond the mere technical discourses on climate change.

Struggling against climate change means changing the attitude of human beings towards nature and the way in which they relate to one another. This is a profoundly ethical change, which will affect the way our societies live and develop. A declaration of ethical principles will be an indispensable instrument in this search of a new vision of a sustainable world. A declaration of ethical principles will be a useful educational tool and a guide for informed policies at the national and international levels.

Question 4: Why is UNESCO involved in promoting the declaration?

UNESCO has a leading role globally as a UN Agency with a specialized mandate in the social and human sciences, as well as in the natural sciences, education, culture and communications, whose constitutional aim is to advance international peace and the common welfare of mankind through strengthening its “intellectual and moral solidarity”.

As such, its Member States have also mandated UNESCO with promoting ethical science: science which shares the benefits of progress for all, protects the planet from ecological collapse and which creates a solid basis for peaceful cooperation.

Plans for a UNESCO declaration on the ethics of climate change mitigation and adaptation were motivated by a decade of work on climate change by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), a scientific advisory body at UNESCO.

UNESCO has hosted the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) since 1993, and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) since 1998. From then, they have been the only global, multidisciplinary and pluralistic fora for bioethics and ethics of science and technology.

UNESCO has a leading role at the United Nations level and globally in the field of bioethics and ethics of science and technology due to UNESCO’s normative instruments - Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003), Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005) - and its capacity-building programmes to implement those instruments. UNESCO’s normative instruments are the only global instruments available constituting an ethical framework for bioethics and a basis for regional and national legislation in these domains. They have been cited by the European Court of Human Rights and other Regional Supreme Courts in testimonials on the subjects concerned.

Elaboration and adoption of a declaration on ethical principles in relation to climate change will reinforce the role of ethics in science and technology. UNESCO’s work will build on and complement work on climate change being done within the United Nations system, for instance by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Question 5: Who is writing the declaration?

UNESCO has invited 24 environmental experts from around the world to write a first draft of a preliminary text of a declaration. These experts were selected from a large pool of proposed candidates after a wide consultative process with UNESCO Member States, the UN system, and other relevant stakeholders.

These experts from Africa; the Arab world; Asia and the Pacific; Europe and North America; and Latin America and the Caribbean met, in their private capacity, in the Moroccan capital Rabat from 20 to 24 September 2016 to draft the preliminary text.

Members of the Ad Hoc Expert Group (AHEG) include specialists in climate science, biology, environmental law, oceanography, meteorology, philosophy and ethics. Among them, Mr Avelino Suarez Rodriguez and Ms Lučka Kajfez Bogataj contributed to the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The report describing how the experts devised a first draft is available in English and French.

Until 1 February 2017, Member States are invited to organize national and regional consultations on the first draft as prepared by the expert group, so as to devise comments and to submit them (in French or English) to the UNESCO Director-General.

The Member States’ comments will be integrated to prepare a second draft. Indeed, it is foreseen that the Director-General may again consult the expert group to help integrate the Member States’ comments in a second draft which should be available by mid-May 2017.

In June or July 2017, a second draft will be considered by representatives of Member States who are invited to an intergovernmental conference to be held at UNESCO Headquarters. The outcome of this conference will then be reviewed by the 202nd session of the Executive Board of UNESCO, and transmitted to the General Conference for its consideration.

More information about the consultations ...

Question 6: When will the declaration be finalized?

After the September 2016 Rabat meeting, UNESCO Member States will consider the first draft and send their comments. These will be reflected by the AHEG and the Secretariat of UNESCO in a revised second draft by mid-May 2017.

The final preliminary text of a declaration will be prepared by representatives to be nominated by Member States of UNESCO who will meet at an intergovernmental meeting in June or July 2017. The outcome of this meeting will be then reviewed by the 202nd session of the Executive Board of UNESCO and transmitted to the General Conference of the Organization, which is a gathering of some 195 states.

The target is a final declaration to be approved by UNESCO Member States at the 39th session of UNESCO’s General Conference to be held from 7 to 29 November 2017.

Question 7: How can different stakeholders, including civil society actors, contribute to the process of drafting a declaration on ethical principles in relation to climate change?

The process of elaborating a preliminary text of a declaration on ethical principles in relation to climate change is divided into three distinct stages. The first stage consists in preparing a first draft by an Ad Hoc Expert Group, whose experts act in their private professional capacity. The second stage consists of consultations on the first draft with Member States with comments reflected in a revised draft by mid-May 2017. The third stage would be the elaboration of a final preliminary text by governmental experts of Member States and transmitting this text for examination and adoption by UNESCO’s governing bodies – the Executive Board and the General Conference of UNESCO in November 2017.

The first stage of the process was supported by the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco, host-country of the Climate Change Conference (COP-22, Marrakech, 7-18 November 2016). The National Commission of the Kingdom of Morocco hosted the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Expert Group (AHEG) in Rabat from 20 to 24 September 2016.

It is during the second stage of the process of the elaboration of a declaration that we expect broader contribution to this process to ensure that the consultations with Member States are inclusive. These consultations should include governmental and non-governmental stakeholders including governmental experts, decision-makers, national scientific communities in both natural and social and human sciences, as well as local communities, environmental and climate change activists, NGOs and the mass media. These organizations will be invited to send their comments to the focal points in Member States, organize meetings and debates on the issue, express their opinions about the format and aims of a declaration on ethical principles in relation to climate change, as well as propose their written contributions to the text of a declaration.

The comments submitted by Member States based on the inputs from their different national actors should be received by UNESCO’s Director-General in French or English by 1 February 2017. They will be reflected by the AHEG and the Secretariat of UNESCO in a revised second draft of a preliminary text. A second meeting of the AHEG could be convened in March/April 2017 for preparing the revised second draft. Member States and other stakeholders are invited to consider hosting this second meeting.

The final stage of the preparation of a preliminary text of a declaration and its examination and adoption by UNESCO’s Member States is a purely intergovernmental process facilitated by an intergovernmental meeting of experts in June or July 2017 and examination of the outcome of this meeting at the 202nd session of the Executive Board and the 39th session of the General Conference in November 2017. This process will be managed by the Secretariat of UNESCO.

Question 8: What other Declarations have been initiated by UNESCO?

Here are some examples of important Declarations that UNESCO has initiated:

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