Environmental ethics: from apprehension to action

23 March 2002

Human impacts on the ecological systems of the planet have reached an unprecedented level and have a clear and a direct impact on the economy, human health, social justice, national security and global sustainable development. Such a situation calls for international action in favour of introducing the environmental ethics for global stewardship. The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), established by UNESCO in 1999, is putting in train an initiative that seeks the establishment of a universal set of values on environmental ethics. To this end, Prof. Jens Erik Fenstad, COMEST Chairman, has put forward proposals for discussion and called for co-operation between UNESCO, ICSU, its Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics of Science (SCRES) and other partners. The initiative in question heralds a new important phase of COMEST activity, and builds on earlier activity on the ethics of fresh water, energy and outer space. The experience of the Committee, its competence and representative nature provide basis for a deep and genuinely international analysis. Expression of solidarity from interested partners and their co-operation with the Committee would be welcome (More).

When addressing the ethics of science and technology at the General Conference of UNESCO in November 2001, the almost 190 Member States highlighted the importance of COMEST as a part of a multicultural and transdisciplinary ethical reflection on science and technology. One of their strategic recommendations in the Organizationís Programme and Budget for 2002-2003 was to focus COMEST action on the ethics of the environment, in order to develop an ethical platform for risk assessment and management and provide information to the public on the impact of new technologies affecting the environment and accelerating climate change.

In its turn, the strategy of action selected by Member States stems from recommendations made by the WCS in Budapest. The Science Agenda-Framework for Action, adapted by the World Conference, urged the international scientific community to foster, in co-operation with other actors, a debate promoting environmental ethics and an environmental code of conduct and to develop the activity of COMEST.

The COMEST initiative responds to the expectations of Member States and the WCS. Initially, COMEST will focus on the identification of a range of basic themes to be examined in order to apprehend values of the environmental ethics. As the Chairman of COMEST explains, six themes are so far in the spotlight:

? Basic values: an analysis of environmental ethics;

? Values in conflict: the search for answers in complex environmental situations;

? Understanding the science: advantages and constraints of modelling complex systems;

? A review of problem areas: a preliminary analysis of selected problems to test principles of ethical management;

? From values to action: monitoring mechanisms and their control;

? Building awareness and understanding: promotion of a dialogue between scientific communities, decision makers and the public at large.

A COMEST workshop is to be held during the course of 2002 to plan and launch the work of a new COMEST Sub-commission on the Ethics of the Environment. The Commission may also establish study groups involving the Sectors of Natural Sciences and Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO and other interested partners.

For further information contact Mr. Howard Moore, Director, Executive Office of the Sector of Natural Sciences, UNESCO; e-mail: h.moore@unesco.org